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Matthew swung the maul and lowered it onto the head of the wooden post. It landed with a satisfying thwack that reverberated up his arms, across his shoulders, and down his back. He lifted the maul again.
“I don’t believe you need to strike the post a third time,” Fernando drawled from behind him. “It should still be standing straight and tall when the next ice age comes.”
Matthew rested the business end of the maul on the ground and propped his arms on the shaft. He was not sweaty or winded. He was, however, annoyed at the interruption.
“What is it, Fernando?”
“I heard you speaking to Baldwin last night,” he replied.
Matthew picked up the posthole digger without responding.
“I take it he told you to stay here and not to cause any trouble—for now,” Fernando continued.
Matthew thrust the two sharp blades into the earth. They descended quite a bit farther into the soil than they would have if a human had been wielding the tool. He gave the implement a twist, withdrew it from the ground, and picked up a wooden post.
“Come, Mateus. Fixing Sarah’s fence is hardly the most useful way to spend your time.”
“The most useful way to spend my time would be to find Benjamin and rid the family of the monster once and for all.” Matthew held the seven-foot fence post in one hand as easily as though it weighed no more than a pencil and drove the tip into the soft earth. “Instead I’m waiting for Baldwin to give me permission to do what I should have done long ago.”
“Hmm.” Fernando studied the fence post. “Why don’t you go, then? To hell with Baldwin and his dictatorial ways. See to Benjamin. It will be no trouble for me to look after Diana as well as Sarah.”
Matthew turned a scathing glance on Fernando. “I am not going to leave my pregnant mate in the middle of nowhere—not even with you.”
“So your plan is to stay here, fixing whatever you can find that is broken, until the happy moment when Baldwin rings to authorize you to kill your own child. Then you will drag Diana along to whatever godforsaken hole Benjamin occupies and eviscerate him in front of your wife?” Fernando flung his hands up in disgust. “Don’t be absurd.”
“Baldwin won’t tolerate anything but obedience, Fernando. He made that very clear at Sept-Tours.”
Baldwin had dragged the de Clermont men and Fernando out into the night and explained in brutal and detailed terms just what would befall each and every one of them if he detected a whisper of protest or a glimmer of insurrection. Afterward even Gallowglass had looked shaken.
“There was a time when you enjoyed outflanking Baldwin. But since your father died, you have let your brother treat you abominably.” Fernando snagged the post maul before Matthew could get his hands on it.
“I couldn’t lose Sept-Tours. Maman wouldn’t have survived it—not after Philippe’s death.”
Matthew’s mother had been far from invincible then. She had been as fragile as blown glass. “The château might technically belong to the Knights of Lazarus, but everyone knows that the brotherhood belongs to the de Clermonts. If Baldwin wanted to challenge Philippe’s will and claim Sept-Tours, he would have succeeded, and Ysabeau would have been out in the cold.”
“Ysabeau seems to have recovered from Philippe’s death. What is your excuse now?”
“Now my wife is a de Clermont.” Matthew gave Fernando a level look.
“I see.” Fernando snorted. “Marriage has turned your mind to mush and bent your spine like a willow twig, my friend.”
“I won’t do anything to jeopardize her position. She might not yet understand what it means, but you and I both know how important it is to be counted among Philippe’s children,” Matthew said. “The de Clermont name will protect her from all sorts of threats.”
“And for this tenuous toehold in the family, you would sell your soul to that devil?” Fernando was genuinely surprised.
“For Diana’s sake?” Matthew turned away. “I would do anything. Pay any price.”
“Your love for her borders on obsession.” Fernando stood his ground when Matthew whirled back around, his eyes black. “It is not healthy, Mateus. Not for you. Nor for her.”
“So Sarah’s been filling your ears with my shortcomings, has she? Diana’s aunts never really did approve of me.” Matthew glared at the house. It may have been a trick of the light, but the house appeared to be shaking on its foundations with laughter.
“Now that I see you with their niece, I understand why,” Fernando said mildly. “The blood rage has always made you prone to excessive behavior. Being mated has made it worse.”
“I have thirty years with her, Fernando. Forty or fifty, if I’m lucky. How many centuries did you share with Hugh?”
“Six,” Fernando bit out.
“And was that enough?” Matthew exploded. “Before you judge me for being consumed with my mate’s well-being, put yourself in my shoes and imagine how you would have behaved had you known that your time with Hugh would be so brief.”
“Loss is loss, Matthew, and a vampire’s soul is as fragile as that of any warmblood. Six hundred years or sixty or six—it doesn’t matter. When your mate dies, a part of your soul dies with him. Or her,”
Fernando said gently. “And you will have your children—Marcus as well as the twins—to comfort you.”
“How will any of that matter if Diana is not here to share it?” Matthew looked desperate.
“No wonder you were so hard on Marcus and Phoebe,” Fernando said with dawning understanding.
“Turning Diana into a vampire is your greatest desire—”
“Never,” Matthew interrupted, his voice savage.
“And your greatest horror,” Fernando finished.
“If she became a vampire, she would no longer be my Diana,” Matthew said. “She would be something—someone—else.”
“You might love her just the same,” Fernando said.
“How could I, when I love Diana for all that she is?” Matthew replied.
Fernando had no answer for this. He could not imagine Hugh as anything but a vampire. It had defined him, given him the unique combination of fierce courage and dreamy idealism that had made Fernando fall in love with him.
“Your children will change Diana. What will happen to your love when they are born?”
“Nothing,” Matthew said roughly, snatching at the maul. Fernando tossed the heavy tool easily from one hand to the other to keep it out of his reach.
“That is the blood rage talking. I can hear it in your voice.” The maul went sailing through the air at ninety miles an hour and landed in the O’Neils’ yard. Fernando grabbed Matthew by the throat. “I am frightened for your children. It pains me to say it—to even think it—but I have seen you kill someone you loved.”
“Diana. Is. Not. Eleanor.” Matthew ground out the words one at a time.
“No. What you felt for Eleanor is nothing compared to what you feel for Diana. Yet all it took was a casual touch from Baldwin, a mere suggestion that Eleanor might agree with him rather than you, and you were ready to tear them both apart.” Fernando searched Matthew’s face. “What will you do if Diana sees to the babies’ needs before yours?”
“I’m in control now, Fernando.”
“Blood rage heightens all the instincts a vampire has until they are as keen as honed steel. Your possessiveness is already dangerous. How can you be sure you will keep it in check?”
“Christ, Fernando. I can’t be sure. Is that what you want me to say?” Matthew drove his fingers through his hair.
“I want you to listen to Marcus instead of building fences and seeing to the gutters,” Fernando replied. “Not you, too. It’s madness to even think of branching out on my own with Benjamin on the loose and the Congregation up in arms,” Matthew snapped.
“I was not talking about forming a scion.” Fernando thought Marcus’s idea was excellent, but he knew when to keep his own counsel.
“What, then?” Matthew said with a frown.
“Your work. If you were to focus on the blood rage, you might be able to stop whatever plans Benjamin is setting into motion without striking a single blow.” Fernando let this sink in before he continued. “Even Gallowglass thinks you should be in a laboratory analyzing that page you have from the Book of Life, and he doesn’t understand the first thing about science.”
“None of the local colleges have sufficient laboratories for my needs,” Matthew said. “I haven’t only been buying new downspouts, you see. I’ve been making inquiries, too. And you’re right.
Gallowglass has no idea what my research entails.”
Nor did Fernando. Not really. But he knew who did.
“Surely Miriam has been doing something while you were gone. She’s hardly the type to sit around idly. Can you not go over her most recent findings?” Fernando asked.
“I told her they could wait,” Matthew said gruffly.
“Even previously gathered data might prove useful, now that you have Diana and the twins to consider.” Fernando would use anything—even Diana—to bait this hook if it would get Matthew acting instead of simply reacting. “Perhaps it’s not the blood rage that explains her pregnancy. Perhaps she and the witch in Jerusalem both inherited an ability to conceive a vampire’s child.”
“It’s possible,” Matthew said slowly. Then his attention was caught by Sarah’s purple Mini Cooper skidding and slipping along on the loose gravel. Matthew’s shoulders lowered, and some of the darkness disappeared from his eyes. “I really have to resurface the driveway,” he said absently, watching the car’s progress.
Diana got out of the car and waved in their direction. Matthew smiled and waved back. “You have to start thinking again,” Fernando retorted.
Matthew’s phone rang. “What is it, Miriam?”
“I’ve been thinking.” Miriam never bothered with pleasantries. Not even the recent scare with Benjamin had changed that.
“What a coincidence,” Matthew said drily. “Fernando’s just been urging me to do the same.”
“Do you remember when someone broke in to Diana’s rooms last October? We feared at the time that whoever it was might be looking for genetic information about her—hair, nail clippings, bits of skin.”
“Of course I remember,” Matthew said, wiping his hand over his face.
“You were sure it was Knox and the American witch Gillian Chamberlain. What if Benjamin was involved?” Miriam paused. “I have a really bad feeling about all this, Matthew—like I’ve woken up from a pleasant dream only to discover that a spider has snared me in his web.”
“He wasn’t in her rooms. I would have caught the scent.” Matthew sounded sure, but there was a trace of worry in his voice as well.
“Benjamin is too smart to have gone himself. He would have sent a lackey—or one of his children.
As his sire, you can sniff him out, but you know that the scent signature is practically undetectable in grandchildren.” Miriam sighed with exasperation. “Benjamin mentioned witches and your genetics research. You don’t believe in coincidences, remember?”
Matthew did remember saying something like that once—long before he’d met Diana. He made an involuntary check on the house. It was a combination of instinct and reflex now, this need to protect his wife. Matthew pushed away Fernando’s earlier warning about his obsessiveness.
“Have you had a chance to delve further into Diana’s DNA?” He had taken the blood samples and cheek swabs last year.
“What do you think I’ve been doing all this while? Crocheting blankets in case you came home with babies and weeping about your absence? And yes, I know as much about the twins as the rest— which is to say not nearly enough.”
Matthew shook his head ruefully. “I’ve missed you, Miriam.”
“Don’t. Because the next time I see you, I’m going to bite you so hard you’ll have the scar for years.” Miriam’s voice shook. “You should have killed Benjamin long ago. You knew he was a monster.”
“Even monsters can change,” Matthew said softly. “Look at me.”
“You were never a monster,” she said. “That was a lie you told to keep the rest of us away.”
Matthew disagreed, but he let the matter drop. “So what did you learn about Diana?”
“I learned that what we think we know about your wife is minuscule compared to what we don’t know. Her nuclear DNA is like a labyrinth: If you go wandering in it, you’re likely to get lost,” Miriam said, referring to Diana’s unique genetic fingerprint. “And her mtDNA is equally perplexing.
“Let’s put aside the mtDNA for the moment. All that will tell us is what Diana has in common with her female ancestors.” Matthew would get back to Diana’s mitochondrial DNA later. “I want to understand what makes her unique.”
“What’s worrying you?” Miriam knew Matthew well enough to hear what he wasn’t saying.
“Her ability to conceive my children, for a start.” Matthew drew a deep breath. “And Diana picked up a sort of dragon while she was in the sixteenth century. Corra is a firedrake. And her familiar.”
“Familiar? I thought that business about witches and familiars was a human myth. No wonder her transmogrification gene is so strange,” Miriam muttered. “A firedrake. Just what we need. Wait a minute. Is it on a leash or something? Can we get a blood sample?”
“Perhaps,” Matthew said dubiously. “I’m not sure Corra would cooperate for a cheek swab, though.”
“I wonder if she and Diana are genetically related. . . .” Miriam trailed off, intrigued by the possibilities.
“Have you found anything in Diana’s witch chromosome that leads you to believe it controls fertility?” Matthew asked.
“That’s an entirely new request, and you know that scientists usually don’t find anything unless they’re looking for it,” Miriam said tartly. “Give me a few days, and I’ll see what I can uncover. There are so many unidentified genes in Diana’s witch chromosome that some days I wonder if she is a witch.”
Matthew remained silent. He couldn’t very well tell her that Diana was a weaver when not even Sarah knew.
“You’re keeping something from me,” Miriam said, a note of accusation in her voice.
“Send me a report on whatever else you’ve managed to identify,” he said. “We’ll discuss it more in a few days. Take a look at my DNA profile, too. Focus on whatever genes we haven’t identified yet, especially if they’re near the blood-rage gene. See if anything strikes you.”
“Ooo-kay,” Miriam said deliberately. “You have a secure Internet connection, right?”
“As secure as Baldwin’s money can buy.”
“Pretty damn secure, then,” she said under her breath. “Talk to you later. And, Matthew?”
“Yes?” he said, frowning.
“I’m still going to bite you for not killing Benjamin when you had a chance.”
“You’ll have to catch me first.”
“That’s easy. All I have to do is catch Diana. You’ll walk right into my arms then,” she said just before she disconnected.
“Miriam’s back in top form,” Fernando said.
“She always was able to recover from a crisis with amazing speed,” Matthew said fondly. “Do you remember when Bertrand—”
An unfamiliar car turned in to the driveway.
Matthew sprinted toward it, Fernando at his heels.
The gray-haired woman driving a dented navy Volvo didn’t seem a bit surprised to be confronted by two vampires, one of them exceptionally tall. Instead she rolled down the window.
“You must be Matthew,” the woman said. “I’m Vivian. Diana asked me to stop by and see Sarah.
She’s worried about the tree in the keeping room.”
“What is that scent?” Fernando asked Matthew.
“Bergamot,” Matthew replied, his eyes narrowing.
“It’s a common scent! Besides, I’m an accountant,” Vivian said indignantly, “not just the coven’s high priestess. What do you expect me to smell of—fire and brimstone?”
“Vivian?” Sarah stood at the front door and squinted into the sunlight. “Is someone sick?”
Vivian climbed out of the car. “Nobody’s sick. I ran into Diana at the store.”
“I see you’ve met Matthew and Fernando,” Sarah said.
“I have.” Vivian looked the two of them over. “Goddess preserve us from handsome vampires.”
She started walking toward the house. “Diana said you’ve got a bit of trouble.”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Matthew said with a scowl.
“He always says that. Sometimes he’s even right.” Sarah beckoned to Vivian. “Come inside.
Diana’s got iced tea made.”
“Everything is fine, Ms. Harrison,” Matthew said, stalking alongside the witch.
Diana appeared behind Sarah. She looked at Matthew in fury, her hands on her hips.
“Fine?” she demanded. “Peter Knox murdered Em. There’s a tree growing out of the fireplace. I’m pregnant with your children. We’ve been evicted from Sept-Tours. And the Congregation could show up at any minute and force us to separate. Does that sound fine to you, Vivian?”
“The Peter Knox who had a crush on Diana’s mother? Isn’t he a member of the Congregation?”
“Not anymore,” Matthew replied.
“I think we’d better go inside after all.” Vivian shook her finger at Sarah. “You told me Em had a heart attack.”
“She did,” Sarah said defensively. Vivian’s lips curled in disgust. “It’s the truth! Matthew’s son said that was the cause of death.”
“You’re awfully good at telling the truth and lying at the same time, Sarah.” Vivian’s tone softened.
“Emily was a big part of our community. So are you. We need to know what really happened in France.”
“Knowing whether it’s Knox’s fault or not won’t change anything. Emily will still be dead.”
Sarah’s eyes brimmed with tears. She dashed them away. “And I don’t want the coven involved. It’s too dangerous.”
“We’re your friends. We’re already involved.” Vivian rubbed her hands together. “Sunday is Lughnasadh.”
“Lughnasadh?” Sarah said suspiciously. “The Madison coven hasn’t celebrated Lughnasadh for decades.”
“We don’t normally have a big celebration, it’s true, but this year Hannah O’Neil is pulling out all the stops to welcome you back home. And to give us all a chance to say good-bye to Em.”
“But Matthew—Fernando.” Sarah dropped her voice. “The covenant.”
Vivian shouted with laughter. “Diana’s pregnant. It’s a little late to worry about breaking the rules.
Besides, the coven knows all about Matthew. Fernando, too.”
“They do?” Sarah said, startled.
“They do,” Diana said firmly. “Smitty has bonded with Matthew over hand tools, and you know what a gossip he can be.” The indulgent smile she gave Matthew took some of the sting out of her words.
“We’re known as a progressive coven. If we’re lucky, maybe Diana will trust us with whatever is wrapped up inside her disguising spell. See you Sunday.” With a smile at Matthew and a wave to Fernando, Vivian got into her car and pulled away.
“Vivian Harrison is a bulldozer,” Sarah grumbled.
“Observant, too,” Matthew said thoughtfully. “She is.” Sarah studied Diana. “Vivian’s right. You are wearing a disguising spell—a good one.
Who cast it for you?”
“Nobody. I—” Unable to lie, and still unwilling to tell her aunt the truth, Diana snapped her mouth shut. Matthew scowled.
“Fine. Don’t tell me.” Sarah stomped back to the keeping room. “And I’m not going to that potluck. The whole coven is on some vegetarian kick. There will be nothing to eat but zucchini and Hannah’s famously inedible Key lime pudding pie.”
“The widow is feeling more herself,” Fernando whispered, giving Diana a thumbs-up as he followed Sarah into the house. “Returning to Madison was a good idea.”
“You promised you’d tell Sarah you’re a weaver when we were settled here at the Bishop house,”
Matthew said when he and Diana were alone. “Why haven’t you?”
“I’m not the only one keeping secrets. And I’m not just talking about the blood-vow business or even the fact that vampires kill other vampires with blood rage. You should have told me that Hugh and Fernando were a couple. And you definitely should have told me that Philippe had been using your illness as a weapon all these years.”
“Does Sarah know that Corra is your familiar, not a souvenir? And what about meeting your father in London?” Matthew crossed his arms.
“It wasn’t the right moment,” Diana said with a sniff.
“Ah, yes, the elusive right moment.” Matthew snorted. “It never comes, Diana. Sometimes we just have to throw caution to the wind and trust the people we love.”
“I do trust Sarah.” Diana bit her lip. She didn’t have to finish. Matthew knew that the real problem was she didn’t trust herself or her magic. Not completely.
“Take a walk with me,” he said, holding out his hand. “We can talk about this later.”
“It’s too hot,” Diana protested, though she still put her hand in his.
“I’ll cool you off,” he promised with a smile. Diana looked at him with interest. Matthew’s smile broadened.
His wife—his heart, his mate, his life—stepped down off the porch and into his arms. Diana’s eyes were the blue and gold of a summer sky, and Matthew wanted nothing more than to fall headlong into their bright depths, not to lose himself but to be found.
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