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I’d been waiting for the crunch of tires on gravel since pushing the disconnect button on Ysabeau’s tiny mobile phone—and since then it hadn’t been out of my sight.
A fresh pot of tea and breakfast rolls were waiting for me when I emerged from the bathroom, phone in hand. I bolted the food, flung on the first clothes that my fingers touched, and flew down the stairs with wet hair. Matthew wouldn’t reach Sept-Tours for hours, but I was determined to be waiting when he pulled up.
First I waited in the salon on a sofa by the fire, wondering what had happened in Oxford to make Matthew change his mind. Marthe brought me a towel and roughly dried my hair with it when I showed no inclination to use it myself.
As the time of his arrival grew nearer, pacing in the hall was preferable to sitting in the salon. Ysabeau appeared and stood with her hands on her hips. I continued, despite her forbidding presence, until Marthe brought a wooden chair to the front door. She convinced me to sit, though the chair’s carving had clearly been designed to acquaint its occupants with the discomforts of hell, and Matthew’s mother retreated to the library.
When the Range Rover entered the courtyard, I flew outside. For the first time in our relationship, Matthew didn’t beat me to the door. He was still straightening his long legs when my arms locked around his neck, my toes barely touching the ground.
“Don’t do that again,” I whispered, my eyes shut against sudden tears. “Don’t ever do that again.”
Matthew’s arms went around me, and he buried his face in my neck. We held each other without speaking. Matthew reached up and loosened my grip, gently setting me back on my feet. He cupped my face, and familiar touches of snow and frost melted on my skin. I committed new details of his features to memory, such as the tiny creases at the corners of his eyes and the precise curve of the hollow under his full lower lip.
“Dieu,” he whispered in wonder, “I was wrong.”
“Wrong?” My voice was panicky.
“I thought I knew how much I missed you. But I had no idea.”
“Tell me.” I wanted to hear again the words he’d said on the phone last night.
“I love you, Diana. God help me, I tried not to.”
My face softened into his hands. “I love you, too, Matthew, with all my heart.”
Something in his body altered subtly at my response. It wasn’t his pulse, since he didn’t have much of a pulse, nor his skin, which remained deliciously cool. Instead there was a sound—a catch in his throat, a murmur of longing that sent a shock of desire through me. Matthew detected it, and his face grew fierce. He bent his head, fitting his cold lips to mine.
The resulting changes in my body were neither slight nor subtle. My bones turned to fire, and my hands crept around his back and slid down. When he tried to draw away, I pulled his hips back toward me.
Not so fast, I thought.
His mouth hovered above mine in surprise. My hands slid lower, holding on to his backside possessively, and his breath caught again until it purred in his throat.
“Diana,” he began, a note of caution in his voice.
My kiss demanded he tell me what the problem was.
Matthew’s only answer was to move his mouth against mine. He stroked the pulse in my neck, then floated his hand down to cup my left breast, now stroking the fabric over the sensitive skin between my arm and my heart. With his other hand at my waist, he pulled me more tightly against him.
After a long while, Matthew loosened his hold enough that he could speak. “You are mine now.”
My lips were too numb to reply, so I nodded and kept a firm grip on his backside.
He stared down at me. “Still no doubts?”
“We are one, from this moment forward. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” I understood, at the very least, that no one and nothing was going to keep me from Matthew.
“She has no idea.” Ysabeau’s voice rang through the courtyard. Matthew stiffened, his arms circling me protectively. “With that kiss you have broken every rule that holds our world together and keeps us safe. Matthew, you have marked that witch as your own. And, Diana, you have offered your witch’s blood—your power—to a vampire. You have turned your back on your own kind and pledged yourself to a creature who is your enemy.”
“It was a kiss,” I said, shaken.
“It was an oath. And having made this promise to each other, you are outlaws. May the gods help you both.”
“Then we are outlaws,” Matthew said quietly. “Should we leave, Ysabeau?” There was a vulnerable child’s voice behind the man’s, and something inside me broke for making him choose between us.
His mother strode forward and slapped him, hard, across the face. “How dare you ask that question?”
Mother and son both looked shocked. The mark of Ysabeau’s slender hand stood out against Matthew’s cheek for a split second—red, then blue—before it faded.
“You are my most beloved son,” she continued, her voice as strong as iron. “And Diana is now my daughter—my responsibility as well as yours. Your fight is my fight, your enemies are my enemies.”
“You don’t have to shelter us, Maman.” Matthew’s voice was taut as a bowstring.
“Enough of that nonsense. You are going to be hounded to the ends of the earth because of this love you share. We fight as a family.” Ysabeau turned to me. “As for you, daughter—you will fight, as you promised. You are reckless—the truly brave always are—but I cannot fault your courage. Still, you need him as much as you need the air you breathe, and he wants you as he’s wanted nothing and no one since I made him. So it is done, and we will make the best of it.” Ysabeau unexpectedly pulled me toward her and pressed her cold lips to my right cheek, then my left. I’d been living under the woman’s roof for days, but this was my official welcome. She looked coolly at Matthew and made her real point.
“The way we will make the best of it begins with Diana behaving like a witch and not some pathetic human. The women of the de Clermont family defend themselves.”
Matthew bristled. “I’ll see that she’s safe.”
“This is why you are always losing at chess, Matthew.” Ysabeau shook her finger at him. “Like Diana, the queen has almost unlimited power. Yet you insist on surrounding her and leaving yourself vulnerable. This is not a game, however, and her weakness puts us all at risk.”
“Stay out of this, Ysabeau,” Matthew warned. “Nobody is going to force Diana to be something she isn’t.”
His mother gave an elegant, expressive snort.
“Exactly. We are no longer going to let Diana force herself to be a human, which she is not. She is a witch. You are a vampire. If this was not true, we would not be in such a mess. Matthew, mon cher, if the witch is brave enough to want you, she has no reason to fear her own power. You could rip her apart if you wanted to. And so can the ones who will come for you when they realize what you have done.”
“She’s right, Matthew,” I said.
“Come, we should go inside.” He kept a wary eye on his mother. “You’re cold, and we need to talk about Oxford. Then we’ll tackle the subject of magic.”
“I need to tell you what happened here, too.” If this was going to work, we would have to reveal some of our secrets—such as the possibility that I might turn into running water at any moment.
“There’s plenty of time for you to tell me everything,” said Matthew, leading me toward the château.
Marthe was waiting for him when he walked through the door. She gave him a fierce hug, as if he’d returned in triumph from battle, and settled us all in front of the salon’s blazing fire.
Matthew positioned himself next to me and watched me drink some tea. Every few moments he put his hand on my knee, or smoothed the sweater across my shoulders, or tucked a bit of hair back into place, as if trying to make up for his brief absence. Once he’d begun to relax, the questions began. They were innocently ordinary in the beginning. Soon the conversation turned to Oxford.
“Were Marcus and Miriam in the lab when the break-in was attempted?” I asked.
“They were,” he said, taking a sip from the glass of wine Marthe had put beside him, “but the thieves didn’t get far. The two of them weren’t in any real danger.”
“Thank God,” Ysabeau murmured, staring at the fire.
“What were they looking for?”
“Information. About you,” he said reluctantly. “Someone broke in to your rooms at New College as well.”
There was one secret out in the open.
“Fred was horrified,” Matthew continued. “He assured me they’ll put new locks on your doors and a camera in your stairwell.”
“It’s not Fred’s fault. With the new students, all you need to get past the porters is a confident step and a university scarf. But there was nothing for them to take! Were they after my research?” The mere thought of such a thing was ridiculous. Who cared enough about the history of alchemy to engineer a break-in?
“You have your computer, with your research notes on it.” Matthew gripped my hands tighter. “But it wasn’t your work they were after. They tore apart your bedroom and the bathroom. We think they were looking for a sample of your DNA—hair, skin, fingernail clippings. When they couldn’t get into the lab, they went looking in your rooms.”
My hand was shaking slightly. I tried to pull it from his grip, not wanting him to know how badly this news had jangled me. Matthew held on.
“You’re not alone in this, remember?” He fixed his gaze on me.
“So it wasn’t an ordinary burglar. It was a creature, someone who knows about us and about Ashmole 782.”
“Well, they won’t find much. Not in my rooms.” When Matthew looked puzzled, I explained. “My mother insisted that I clean my hairbrush before leaving for school each morning. It’s an ingrained habit. She made me flush the hair down the toilet—my nail clippings, too.”
Matthew now appeared stunned. Ysabeau didn’t look surprised at all.
“Your mother sounds more and more like someone I would have been eager to know,” Ysabeau said quietly.
“Do you remember what she told you?” Matthew asked.
“Not really.” There were faint memories of sitting on the edge of the bathtub while my mother demonstrated her morning and evening routine, but little more. I frowned with concentration, the flickering recollections growing brighter. “I remember counting to twenty. Somewhere along the way, I twirled around and said something.”
“What could she have been thinking?” Matthew mused out loud. “Hair and fingernails carry a lot of genetic information.”
“Who knows? My mother was famous for her premonitions. Then again, she could just have been thinking like a Bishop. We’re not the sanest bunch.”
“Your mother was not mad, Diana, and not everything can be explained by your modern science, Matthew. Witches have believed for centuries that hair and fingernails had power,” said Ysabeau.
Marthe muttered in agreement and rolled her eyes at the ignorance of youth.
“Witches use them to work spells,” Ysabeau continued. “Binding spells, love magic—they depend on such things.”
“You told me you weren’t a witch, Ysabeau,” I said, astonished.
“I have known many witches over the years. Not one of them would leave a strand of her hair or scrap of her nails for fear that another witch would find them.”
“My mother never told me.” I wondered what other secrets my mother had kept.
“Sometimes it is best for a mother to reveal things slowly to her children.” Ysabeau’s glance flicked from me to her son.
“Who broke in?” I remembered Ysabeau’s list of possibilities.
“Vampires tried to get into the lab, but we’re less sure about your rooms. Marcus thinks it was vampires and witches working together, but I think it was just witches.”
“Is this why you were so angry? Because those creatures violated my territory?”
We were back to monosyllables. I waited for the rest of the answer.
“I might overlook a trespasser on my land or in my lab, Diana, but I cannot stand by while someone does it to you. It feels like a threat, and I simply . . . can’t. Keeping you safe is instinctive now.” Matthew ran his white fingers through his hair, and a patch stuck out over his ear.
“I’m not a vampire, and I don’t know the rules. You have to explain how this works,” I said, smoothing his hair into place. “So it was the break-in at New College that convinced you to be with me?”
Matthew’s hands moved in a flash to rest on either side of my face. “I needed no encouragement to be with you. You say you’ve loved me since you resisted hitting me with an oar at the river.” His eyes were unguarded. “I’ve loved you longer than that—since the moment you used magic to take a book from its shelf at the Bodleian. You looked so relieved, and then so terribly guilty.”
Ysabeau stood, uncomfortable with her son’s open affection. “We will leave you.”
Marthe started rustling at the table, preparing to depart for the kitchens, where she would doubtless begin whipping up a ten-course feast.
“No, Maman. You should hear the rest.”
“So you are not merely outlaws.” Ysabeau’s voice was heavy. She sank back onto her chair.
“There’s always been animosity between creatures—vampires and witches especially. But Diana and I have brought those tensions into the open. It’s just an excuse, though. The Congregation isn’t really bothered by our decision to break the covenant.”
“Stop speaking in riddles, Matthew,” Ysabeau said sharply. “I’m out of patience with them.”
Matthew looked at me regretfully before he responded. “The Congregation has become interested in Ashmole 782 and the mystery of how Diana acquired it. Witches have been watching the manuscript for at least as long as I have. They never foresaw that you would be the one to reclaim it. And no one imagined that I would reach you first.”
Old fears wriggled to the surface, telling me there was something wrong deep inside me.
“If not for Mabon,” Matthew continued, “powerful witches would have been in the Bodleian, witches who knew the manuscript’s importance. But they were busy with the festival and let their guard down. They left the task to that young witch, and she let you—and the manuscript—slip through her fingers.”
“Poor Gillian,” I whispered. Peter Knox must be furious with her.
“Indeed.” Matthew’s mouth tightened. “But the Congregation has been watching you, too—for reasons that go well beyond the book and have to do with your power.”
“How long?” I wasn’t able to finish my sentence.
“Probably your whole life.”
“Since my parents died.” Unsettling memories from childhood floated back to me, of feeling the tingles of a witch’s attention while on the swings at school and a vampire’s cold stare at a friend’s birthday party. “They’ve been watching me since my parents died.”
Ysabeau opened her mouth to speak, saw her son’s face, and thought better of it.
“If they have you, they’ll have the book, too, or so they think. You’re connected to Ashmole 782 in some powerful way I don’t yet understand. I don’t believe they do either.”
“Not even Peter Knox?”
“Marcus asked around. He’s good at wheedling information out of people. As far as we can tell, Knox is still mystified.”
“I don’t want Marcus to put himself at risk—not for me. He needs to stay out of this, Matthew.”
“Marcus knows how to take care of himself.”
“I have things to tell you, too.” I’d lose my nerve entirely if given a chance to reconsider.
Matthew took both my hands, and his nostrils flared slightly. “You’re tired,” he said, “and hungry. Maybe we should wait until after lunch.”
“You can smell when I’m hungry?” I asked incredulously. “That’s not fair.”
Matthew’s head tipped back, and he laughed. He kept my hands in his, pulling them behind me so that my arms were shaped like wings.
“This from a witch, who could, if she felt like it, read my thoughts as if they were written on ticker tape. Diana, my darling, I know when you change your mind. I know when you’re thinking bad thoughts, like how much fun it would be to jump the paddock fence. And I most definitely know when you’re hungry,” he said, kissing me to make his point clear.
“Speaking of my being a witch,” I said, slightly breathless when he was finished, “we’ve confirmed witchwater on the list of genetic possibilities.”
“What?” Matthew looked at me with concern. “When did that happen?”
“The moment you pulled away from Sept-Tours. I wouldn’t let myself cry while you were here. Once you were gone, I cried—a lot.”
“You’ve cried before,” he said thoughtfully, bringing my hands forward again. He turned them over and examined my palms and fingers. “The water came out of your hands?”
“It came out of everywhere.” I said. His eyebrows rose in alarm. “My hands, my hair, my eyes, my feet—even my mouth. It was like there was no me left, or if there was, I was nothing but water. I thought I’d never taste anything except salt again.”
“Were you alone?” Matthew’s voice turned sharp.
“No, no, of course not,” I said hurriedly. “Marthe and your mother were there. They just couldn’t get near me. There was a lot of water, Matthew. Wind, too.”
“What made it stop?” he asked.
Matthew gave his mother a long look.
“She sang to me.”
The vampire’s heavy lids dropped, shielding his eyes. “Once she sang all the time. Thank you, Maman.”
I waited for him to tell me that she used to sing to him and that Ysabeau hadn’t been the same since Philippe died. But he told me none of those things. Instead he wrapped me up in a fierce hug, and I tried not to mind that he wouldn’t trust me with these parts of himself.
As the day unfolded, Matthew’s happiness at being home was infectious. We moved from lunch to his study. On the floor in front of the fireplace, he discovered most of the places that I was ticklish. Throughout, he never let me behind the walls he’d so carefully constructed to keep creatures away from his secrets.
Once I reached out with invisible fingers to locate a chink in Matthew’s defenses. He looked up at me in surprise.
“Did you say something?” he asked.
“No,” I said, drawing hastily away.
We enjoyed a quiet dinner with Ysabeau, who followed along in Matthew’s lighthearted wake. But she watched him closely, a look of sadness on her face.
Putting on my sorry excuse for pajamas after dinner, I worried about the desk drawer and whether my scent would be on the velvet that cushioned the seals, and I steeled myself to say good night before Matthew retreated, alone, to his study.
He appeared shortly afterward wearing a pair of loose, striped pajama bottoms and a faded black T-shirt, with no shoes on his long, slender feet. “Do you want the left side or the right?” he asked casually, waiting by the bedpost with his arms crossed.
I wasn’t a vampire, but I could turn my head fast enough when it was warranted.
“If it doesn’t matter to you, I’d prefer the left,” he said gravely. “It will be easier for me to relax if I’m between you and the door.”
“I . . . I don’t care,” I stammered.
“Then get in and slide over.” Matthew took the bedding out of my hand, and I did as he asked. He slid under the sheets behind me with a groan of satisfaction.
“This is the most comfortable bed in the house. My mother doesn’t believe we need to bother with good mattresses since we spend so little time sleeping. Her beds are purgatorial.”
“Are you going to sleep with me?” I squeaked, trying and failing to sound as nonchalant as he did.
Matthew put his right arm out and hooked me into it until my head was resting on his shoulder. “I thought I might,” he said. “I won’t actually sleep, though.”
Snuggled against him, I placed my palm flat on his heart so that I would know every time it beat. “What will you do?”
“Watch you, of course.” His eyes were bright. “And when I get tired of doing that—if I get tired of doing that”—he dropped a kiss on each eyelid—“I’ll read. Will the candles bother you?”
“No,” I responded. “I’m a sound sleeper. Nothing wakes me up.”
“I like a challenge,” he said softly. “If I’m bored, I’ll figure out something that will wake you up.”
“Do you bore easily?” I teased, reaching up and threading my fingers through the hair at the base of his skull.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” he said with a wicked grin.
His arms were cool and soothing, and the feeling of safety in his presence was more restful than any lullaby.
“Will this ever stop?” I asked quietly.
“The Congregation?” Matthew’s voice was worried. “I don’t know.”
“No.” My head rose in surprise. “I don’t care about that.”
“What do you mean, then?”
I kissed him on his quizzical mouth. “This feeling when I’m with you—as if I’m fully alive for the first time.”
Matthew smiled, his expression uncharacteristically sweet and shy. “I hope not.”
Sighing with contentment, I lowered my head onto his chest and fell into dreamless sleep.
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