Mae Wedding — New Short Story

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Mae Wedding

Dani.

Dani.

Danielle!

There were three texts waiting for me as I walked out the door.

Somehow I hadn’t noticed them before.

I closed the door behind me and then stopped to type a text to my sister.

I’m here, Audrey. What do you want?

I stared at the text for a moment, realizing that it sounded a lot sharper than I’d intended it to.

Another text from Audrey popped up.

Danielle! Where are you?

So I just went ahead and sent the text I had already typed.

A moment later, Audrey replied.

Thanks for finally answering. I thought you had overslept.

There was a pause and then another text.

Do you have the ring? You’d better not forget it.

Of course I have the ring, I wrote back quickly.

But even as I pressed send, doubt tugged at my mind.

I began to rummage around in my purse—I couldn’t find the little black ring box anywhere.

Another text came through.

I’m sorry to be pesky. But I know how forgetful you are. Love you.

I stared at Audrey’s text in irritation and then went back into the house.

I found the little black ring box sitting on the kitchen table, and I snatched it up, feeling its soft velvet surface under my fingers.

I opened the box, just to make sure the ring was actually in it, and then I snapped it closed and dropped it into my bag in irritation.

I paused and made myself take a breath. It wasn’t the ring’s fault that I’d forgotten it—and it wasn’t Audrey’s fault, either. My sister wasn’t really a bridezilla—in fact, she’d been good-natured and patient throughout almost all of the wedding preparation.

It was just in the last few days that she’d been stressed out. And I really couldn’t blame her—she just wanted things to go well so that everyone—bride and groom included—had a good time.

As I hurried back toward the door, I paused for just a moment to check my reflection in the mirror in the hall.

My sister, who was usually so calm and businesslike, had gone full-on Renaissance fair for her wedding, and as her maid of honor, I was dressed up in full maiden of yore regalia. My long blond hair, which I’d been growing out for the last six months, had been done up in braids and ribbons, and I’d been allowed to do my makeup any way I’d wished, as long as it was “natural.” But I couldn’t say the same thing about my dress. I was wearing a long and elaborate rose-colored gown that might not have been so bad if it weren’t for all the bows and ribbons that had been attached everywhere.

And the puffy sleeves.

I really didn’t like the puffy sleeves.

But it was my sister’s wedding, and she liked the dress, so I was going to do my best to be happy wearing it.

I hurried outside, slipping just a little in my flower-adorned sandals, and got in my car.

The wedding site was way out in the middle of nowhere, and luckily my phone gave me good directions. Even so, I was running short on time, and the parking lot near the site was filling up fast. I knew Audrey was basically ready to walk down the aisle, and our mother was with her, but she still needed her maid of honor—if for no other reason than to steady her nerves. I parked quickly and jumped out of the car.

The wooded area where the wedding tents had been set up was vast, and I hurriedly pulled a scrap of paper with directions out of my purse.

My phone couldn’t help me where I was going.

I ran across the parking lot, slipping in my sandals again, and I soon reached the wide dirt path that wound its way into the woods.

I hurried onto the path.

My sandals slapped at my heels as I ran along the hard-packed dirt, and my elaborate hairstyle was so full of bobby pins to keep it in place that I felt as if I had a metal helmet clanking against my head.

Luckily, the directions my sister had given me were good, and I was able to find all the landmarks and turn onto the right twisting dirt path. I’d missed the rehearsal due to a sudden spring cold, so I was going to see the actual site and the tents for the first time.

I fished my phone out of my purse and looked for a photo of the site that Audrey had sent me and held it up in front of me—it appeared to be in a little valley. Then I put my phone back in my purse and hurried on.

As I ran, I kept an eye out for Gabe. He was the best man for Kevin, the groom, and I wondered if I might run into him along the way. Gabe would surely need to arrive early, just as I did, and I wouldn’t have minded talking to him for a few minutes alone.

Gabe and I had once gotten along very well—we’d even been headed to a wedding site of our own. And then we had argued, and things had come to an end. But time had passed, and I’d found myself thinking about him again.

I wondered if he’d been thinking about me, too.

The path before me suddenly branched off into two, and I stopped to consult my directions.

My little scrap of paper seemed to indicate that I should take the left branch, but as I looked at the two paths, the left one was just plain dirt, and the right one had little glowing lights that ran along the ground—the right one was definitely more festive-looking.

I consulted my paper once again. It still seemed to show that the left side was the correct path to follow, but as I stood staring at the directions, I could hear laughter and music floating up to me distantly. The sound was coming from the right-hand path.

I decided to follow the branch on the right, just in case. Maybe Audrey had made a mistake in the directions.

I stepped onto it, preparing to run again, but suddenly I was overcome by a sense of peace, and my feet slowed to a stroll. I admired the lights along the path as I walked. They were little glowing orbs that seemed to float just above the ground on both sides of the path, and they all glowed in beautiful jewel tones—rich reds, deep blues, brilliant greens, dazzling yellows. I peered a little closer, wondering how the floating effect was achieved.

I continued on down the path, and I found myself looking around in wonder. Somehow, the air seemed just a little sweeter, and as I looked up at the bright blue sky just visible through the trees, I found myself thinking that Audrey had chosen the perfect date and place.

May really was a perfect time for a wedding.

Soon I began to see people up ahead of me, and I could hear the distant sound of conversation.

I must have chosen the right path after all.

Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name.

“Dani! Dani, stop!” cried a familiar voice.

But when I turned to see who it was, there was no one on the path behind me. There was, however, a disturbance in a thick growth of bushes nearby—someone or something was shaking the branches and leaves violently.

I stepped a little closer, and then someone called out to me again.

“My lady!”

The voice was different from the first one and unfamiliar.

I turned to see a man running toward me.

He was tall and blond, and he looked very worried.

“My lady!” he said again.

“What’s with the ‘my lady’ stuff?” I asked as he reached me.

Then I took in the belted tunic he was wearing with breeches and boots—definitely Ren fair style.

“Oh,” I said. “You must be here for the wedding.”

The man’s face lit up. “Yes, my lady. My name is Virgil. Your sister sent me to find you.”

I frowned a little as I looked at him. “She sent you? I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.”

Virgil looked embarrassed. “I’m a new member of the queen’s guard. But I’m quite capable, I can assure you.”

He held out a hand. “This way, please, my lady.”

“The queen’s guard?” I murmured to myself. It seemed to me that my sister was laying things on pretty thick.

I glanced up at Virgil as the two of us started walking along the path, and I saw the tip of a pointed ear poking out of his long blond hair—Audrey must have talked him into wearing prosthetics.

“She’s really gone all out for this wedding, hasn’t she?” I said.

Virgil glanced at me a little nervously. “Do you mean your sister, my lady?”

“Yes.”

Virgil cast his eyes down. “It’s not really for me to say.”

I sighed. So Virgil was going to stay in character as a member of the queen’s guard, and we wouldn’t even be able to make small talk. But at least I knew for sure that I had chosen the right path to follow.

I was glad I’d followed my instincts and ignored the directions.

There was a shout and more violent rustling from the bushes behind us, and I turned quickly.

“What was that?” I said.

Virgil’s face hardened. “Nothing to worry about, my lady. My men will take care of it.”

I was surprised for a moment by just how serious he looked, but I supposed he was committed to his role.

I allowed myself to be led away.

As we walked along the path, Virgil kept glancing over at me.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

Virgil’s fair skin went slightly pink.

“It’s just that your gown is most becoming, my lady,” he said. “And if I may say so, you truly are as beautiful as everyone says. And the accident that clipped off the tip of your ear has done nothing to mar your beauty.”

He frowned. “Although I thought it was just the one ear—but it looks like it was actually both.”

“My ear?” I said, puzzled.

Virgil’s blush deepened to red.

“I’m sorry, my lady. I was too free with my words. I shouldn’t have commented at all.”

Virgil’s posture became very stiff and formal, and I found myself thinking that Audrey’s friends were weird.

He continued to lead me along the brightly lit path through the trees, and soon we came out into a clearing.

The clearing sloped down into a little valley, and the valley was filled with white tents and lights in all colors of the rainbow that magically floated in the air. People with long, flowing hair, dressed in elaborate costumes, were hurrying back and forth between the tents, and on the far side of the valley, I could see that a white archway covered in flowers had been set up over an equally flower-laden altar.

I paused for a moment to take in the spectacle below. Audrey and her wedding planner had really outdone themselves—I hadn’t paid much attention when Audrey had shared her plans with me, and I realized now that they’d really known what they were doing.

There was nothing tacky or clichéd about what they had done—it looked like a real-life fairy tale.

Virgil had paused also and was looking back at me.

“My lady?” he said.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m coming.”

Virgil hurried on, and I followed him down the hill into the little valley.

He led me on to a tent in the center—the largest and grandest one of them all—and he stood by the entrance to the tent as if he were afraid to move the flap aside and enter.

Instead, he simply held out a hand.

“Your sister awaits, my lady.”

I glanced at him for a moment, and then I pushed the flap aside and stepped in.

Inside, there was a crowd of beautiful girls in equally beautiful dresses, and a soft, golden glow lit up the tent, making it nearly as bright as the day outside. The air smelled sweetly of perfume, and I could hear the murmur of soft voices as the girls fussed around something in the center of the tent.

As I entered, however, the conversation immediately stopped, and all the girls turned as a group to look at me.

I realized that none of the faces before me looked familiar.

“Hi,” I said uncertainly. “Is my sister here?”

The crowd of girls parted to reveal a young woman seated at their center.

She had long golden hair, and she was wearing a crown of flowers and a flowing white gown.

She was also stunningly beautiful.

I watched as her lovely features twisted into a frown that was somehow even more beautiful.

“Who are you?” the woman demanded in a clipped yet musical voice.

“I’m Danielle,” I said. “I was looking for my sister—but I must have stumbled into the wrong wedding by accident.”

I took a step back. “I’m sorry I intruded. You’re a beautiful bride, by the way.”

The woman rose. That one simple movement was fluid, graceful, and somehow mesmerizing.

“Guard!” she screamed.

Virgil stepped back into the tent, his eyes downcast.

“Your majesty,” he said.

“Look at me,” the woman commanded.

Virgil complied.

“Who am I?”

“You are my queen, your majesty.”

“Am I? You seem to have forgotten that. What is my name?”

“You are Queen Leandra, ruler of all the Fae,” Virgil replied.

He was visibly shaking now.

Queen Leandra pointed a finger at me. “Now look at this creature.”

Virgil meekly turned his eyes toward me.

“Why did you bring her here?” the queen demanded.

“I—I thought she was your sister, your majesty.”

Queen Leandra fumed. “My sister? You dare compare this lowly thing to her? This is a human being. This is not my sister.”

Another young woman suddenly rushed into the tent. She was breathtakingly beautiful like the queen, and she was wearing a rose-colored gown that was superficially like mine.

“Leandra!” the young woman cried.

She ran over to the queen—I assumed this was the missing sister.

“What is it, Iona?” Leandra said. “What’s wrong?”

“Humans,” Iona replied. “They’re having a wedding nearby, and our wards don’t seem to be keeping them out. Several have stumbled close to the tents but have been scared off. One actually attacked some of our guards and has been taken into custody.”

“And then there’s this one.” Leandra pointed a finger at me once again. “She got in here with no trouble at all. She could have killed me.”

“What?” I said.

Leandra stared at me with fury in her eyes. “You and your conspirators have ruined my wedding!”

She turned to scream at the hapless Virgil.

“Guard! Do your job and put this miserable creature with the other one!”

Virgil turned toward me, and I decided to run for it.

But as soon as I pushed my way through the tent flap, I found myself surrounded by a group of tall, blond guards that looked a lot like Virgil.

They led me away.

I was marched over to a tent on the other side of the valley—far away from the queen—and then a pair of ridiculously fancy handcuffs were slapped on my wrists.

But even though the cuffs looked more like jewelry than a form of imprisonment, they felt solid and unbreakable as I twisted my wrists against the metal.

I was pushed into the tent, which was dark inside, and my handcuffs were soon attached to a chain, which was then wrapped several times around a large, sturdy pole in the center of the tent. Then I was pushed to a sitting position with my back against the pole. The chain was wrapped around me several more times and then secured somewhere out of my sight.

Then the guards departed, leaving me in the gloom.

But the tent wasn’t completely dark—a vaguely orange glow shone through the white cloth walls—and I wasn’t entirely alone.

I could tell that there was another person on the other side of the pole who was chained and seated as I was.

“Who’s there?” I said.

“Dani, is that you?” said a familiar voice.

It was a male voice—low and a little smoky—and I thought for a moment.

“Gabe?” I said.

“Yes, of course, it’s Gabe.”

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I was following you,” Gabe said. “You were headed the wrong way, as usual, and I was trying to stop you. And then a bunch of guys in elf costumes jumped me.”

I thought back to the disturbance in the bushes I had seen—that had probably been the queen’s guards grabbing Gabe.

“You were trying to help me?” I said.

“Yes,” Gabe replied in exasperation. “I was trying to help you, Dani. And as usual, that ended up getting me in trouble.”

I sat for just a moment, letting his voice wash over me—I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and yet I still felt a little tingle when he said my name.

“I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said at last. “But thanks for looking out for me. And I was hoping I’d run into you here—just not like this.”

“You were?” Gabe said. I could hear genuine astonishment in his voice.

“Yes,” I said simply.

“Even after the way we left things?”

“Yes.” There was more I could say, but it didn’t seem necessary.

I moved a little, and my chains clanked. “So where are we?”

“I overheard some of the guards talking,” Gabe said. “Queen Leandra of the Fae is marrying Aden, the Lord of the Summer Woods, here today, and apparently the spells they use to keep human beings away aren’t working.”

“I heard something like that, too,” I said. “Though I didn’t hear who the groom was.”

I paused. “Do you believe it?”

Gabe rattled his own chains. “I think we have to.”

“So the Queen of the Fae is getting married in May,” I said. “It’s sort of like a Mae Wedding—you know, M-A-E.”

Gabe chuckled. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve actually missed your corny jokes.”

It was my turn to be astonished. “You have?”

“Yes, Dani. I’ve missed you. I’ve even missed the things that used to drive me nuts. In fact, I’ve especially missed the things that used to drive me nuts.”

I felt a little rush of warmth when he said that.

Gabe went on. “You know, Dani, I’ve realized that I spent a lot of time trying to change you. You’re scattered and forgetful sometimes. But that’s who you are. And the good qualities you have far outweigh the less-than-perfect ones. I should have seen that a long time ago. I should have valued you just the way you were.”

“Uh, thanks, I think,” I said. I turned my head in the orange glow, wishing I could see his face. I’d waited a long time to hear Gabe say something like that, and even though the delivery wasn’t ideal, I felt like the sentiment was real.

I just wished I could see his eyes to be sure.

“And I’m sorry I was irritable before,” Gabe said. “This isn’t your fault. There’s no way you could have known those elf guys, or Fae guys, or whatever they are were down here. You saw a likely looking path and you took it. Anybody could have made that same mistake.”

It definitely sounded to me like Gabe was being sincere, and my heart gave a little flutter.

This was the Gabe I’d always hoped to find.

“So you don’t think I’m trouble?”

I could hear a smile in Gabe’s voice. “Well, maybe a little. But you’re the good kind of trouble. And you’re exactly who you should be.”

I felt another rush of warmth. I wanted to turn toward him—to hug him, to kiss him. But all I managed to do was rattle my chains.

And suddenly I thought of my sister.

I groaned. “Audrey’s going to kill me. I’ve got Kevin’s ring.”

My purse, on its slender, flower-entwined strap, was somehow miraculously still dangling from my shoulder.

“And I’ve got Audrey’s,” Gabe said. “I’ve lost track of time, but I have to imagine we’re late by now.”

I glanced around the gloomy tent. “So how do we get out of here?”

“The first thing we have to do is get out of these handcuffs,” Gabe replied. “They’re sturdy, but they looked pretty old-fashioned. If I had a pick, I might be able to unlock mine.”

He paused, and I could hear a smile in his voice again.

“Do you remember that survival skills class we took?”

I smiled myself in response. Gabe had talked me into the class—it had been part of his campaign to get me to be more responsible and less “scattered,” as he put it. But the class had actually turned out to be pretty useful, and I had learned a few things that had come in handy in my own life.

And I had learned how to pick a lock on handcuffs.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve got a hairstyle full of bobby pins. Maybe we can use those.”

My hands had actually been cuffed behind my back, so I began to brush my head against the back of the pole. Maybe I could dislodge a few of them.

“See if you can scootch down a little,” Gabe said. “If you can brush up against the chains, you might be able to dislodge them a bit better.”

After much maneuvering on my part, I was able to loosen a few of the bobby pins, and eventually they fell to the ground with a soft thud.

Gabe quickly scrabbled around on the ground near the pole with his manacled hands.

“I’ve got one!” he said.

I swept my fingers over the ground, too, and eventually I felt my fingers brush against the cool metal of a tiny bobby pin.

I picked it up carefully, and I got to work on my own shackles.

I could hear Gabe’s bobby pin clinking against the metal of his handcuffs, and before long, there was a tiny click.

“I’m free,” he said softly.

His chains rattled as he worked his way free, and as he stood up, I felt my own handcuffs spring open.

I worked my way out of my chains and stood up also.

Gabe hurried over to me and wrapped his arms around me.

Then he stepped back, and I was able to look him in the face for the first time since I’d been brought into the tent.

His face was still a little rugged and weathered from all the time he spent outdoors, and his eyes were still warm and brown, and his dark hair still curled a little at the ends.

He smiled at me in the amber-tinted gloom of the tent, and I could see a look in his eyes that I’d never seen before—one that was open and vulnerable and trusting.

“Your hair’s all messed up,” he said, and he ran a hand over it.

“Oh, Gabe,” I said. And for just a moment, I leaned against him again.

Then I remembered we were trapped.

With Gabe’s arms still encircling me, I glanced around.

“We’ve got to get out of here without being seen,” I said. “And I bet there are guards all around this tent.”

Gabe glanced around also. “I bet you’re right. Stay here.”

He turned and walked stealthily toward the tent wall. Then he crouched down and lifted the cloth ever so slightly and peered out.

I walked over to the opposite side and did the same.

I could see the feet of at least three guards from my side of the tent.

I stood up and found Gabe standing beside me.

“So much for staying put,” he said.

“I was never good at that,” I replied.

Gabe smiled wryly. “I know. So I assume you saw guards just like I did?”

“Yes—I think we’re surrounded.”

Gabe nodded. “I think you’re right. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here.”

I glanced over at the pile of chains we had left behind.

“I have an idea,” I said.

Soon we had gathered up all of the chains, and we had tiptoed up to the flap that served as the entrance to the tent. I didn’t know if the flap was tied shut or not, but it really didn’t matter. I doubted it was tied tightly—tents weren’t meant to hold prisoners.

“What do we do now?” Gabe mouthed silently.

“We throw the chains out,” I whispered. “Then we run the other way.”

Gabe’s eyebrows rose. “That’s it? That’s your big plan?”

“Yes,” I said. “Do you trust me?”

Gabe stared at me for a long moment. Then he smiled.

“Yes,” he said quietly.

I smiled back.

“Then on the count of three,” I said. “One—two—three!”

We both heaved our pile of chains out through the front flap of the tent.

“We’ve escaped!” I shouted at the same time. “You’d better come in here and get us!”

Then I turned and ran toward the opposite end of the tent.

Gabe ran after me.

We reached the far wall and ducked under it just as the first guards were entering the tent.

We scrambled free of the tent, and I hurried over to the nearest post.

“Help me with this,” I said.

I began to push at it.

Gabe saw what I was doing, and he pushed along with me.

Within a matter of moments, the post collapsed, and the roof of the tent began to fall. Soon the big, white mass was writhing as the guards struggled to get out.

Gabe stared at the tent. “They all ran in after us, and you trapped them inside.” He turned to me in wonder. “That really was a good idea.”

I grinned. “I know. Come on—we’d better run.”

I turned and ran toward the trees.

Gabe caught up with me and grabbed my arm. “You’re going the wrong way! The path is this way.”

He veered sharply to the left, and I ran alongside him.

Soon we had scrambled up the hill, and I could spy the dirt path with the brightly colored lights up ahead of us.

I glanced behind me. I could see a crowd of blond-haired guards following us. Our guards had clearly worked their way free of the tent—and from what I could see more had now joined the group to help them.

Gabe glanced back also.

Then we both ran even faster.

We ran along the path with the colorful lights until we broke free of the trees. Then we nearly collided with two people who had suddenly appeared in front of us.

I stopped just in time, and Gabe skidded to a halt beside me.

I looked at the newcomers—a man and a woman—warily, but they seemed to be a normal human couple. They weren’t tall, willowy, or golden-haired, and they didn’t have pointy ears—instead they looked like typical tourists in shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers.

I glanced at the path behind us with the brightly colored lights.

It had disappeared.

The tourists stared at us in irritation.

“Sorry,” Gabe said. “We’re late for a wedding.”

At that moment, both of our cell phones lit up and began to buzz insistently.

I glanced back at the vanished path once more. “Do you think we’re safe?”

Gabe breathed out heavily. “I think so—there’s no sign of pursuit.”

The tourists glared at us and moved on.

My phone continued to buzz.

I glanced at the first of a long line of texts.

I clicked on it.

Where are you? Audrey demanded.

I looked up at Gabe. He was looking at his phone, too.

“We’re in a lot of trouble,” I said.

“Yep,” he replied.

“They’re never going to believe us,” I said.

“No—no, they’re not.”

Gabe smiled and held out his hand.

“Let’s go and get in trouble together.”

I took his hand.

“What are we going to tell them?” I asked.

“Let’s just tell them that I got lost,” Gabe said. “And you came and found me.”

******************

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Lost in the Museum — New Short Story

GirlatMuseum

Saturday morning, Daisy received a call.

“So Daisy.” Ellen’s voice was bright and cheerful through the phone. “Are you coming with us to watch the latest Marvel movie? Chris Hemsworth alone is worth the price of admission.”

Daisy could picture her best friend’s sly smile as she said the words.

Of course, Ellen had a Chris Hemsworth lookalike of her own, so it was easy for her to say things like that. Justin was tall, blond, handsome, and athletic, and he and Ellen had been together for a year now. Everyone knew that the two of them were blissfully happy and that wedding bells were imminent.

Daisy sighed to herself.

Ellen could kid about hunks because she had one of her own—and Daisy was happy for her—truly happy.

But sometimes she felt a bit wistful.

“Daisy?” Ellen said. “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” Daisy said. “Sorry.”

“So are you coming this afternoon? Will you join us for the movie?”

Us—it was always “us” these days. Daisy could remember when she was part of an “us” and Ellen was the friend who tagged along. But that was a long time ago now.

“I can’t,” Daisy said. “I’m seeing Leonardo this afternoon.”

“Seeing Leonardo again?” Ellen’s voice became warm and insinuating. “When are we going to get to meet this mystery man?”

“Not just yet,” Daisy replied. “It’s a bit complicated at the moment.”

“Well, don’t let it get too complicated. And I’m glad you’ve met someone. It’s been a while since Dave.”

Daisy glanced at the time. “I’ve got to go. I’m seeing Leonardo early.”

“Have fun,” Ellen said.

“You, too,” Daisy replied.

Then she stashed her phone in her bag and hurried out the door.

Soon Daisy arrived at the Fine Arts Museum, and she stood for just a moment, staring up at the graceful, gray stone building with its row of pillars in the front. Then she started up the wide, marble steps and came to stand in front of the towering, brass-studded doors.

The museum opened every day promptly at ten, and as Daisy waited by the doors at ten minutes to ten, there was a smattering of tourists waiting with her.

The tourists typically made her antsy—she didn’t like to get caught up in a group of people who milled around without any purpose.

But Daisy knew from experience that she could get ahead of them—she knew where she was going, and they didn’t.

When the doors opened, Daisy walked in along with the tourists. She waited patiently in line to have her purse searched by the security guards, and then she followed the slow-moving group up the few short steps to the Great Hall.

The Great Hall was really quite beautiful—it was a work of art in itself. A paned, patterned skylight soared overhead, and majestic pillars surrounded a circular area underneath that was filled with ornate benches. And the hall was full of plants—big, beautiful green fronds and red and yellow flowers spilled out of enormous stone urns. The plants were truly lovely, and Daisy wondered if they were real—she’d never paused long enough to find out.

And she didn’t have time to pause now, either—she had to get to Leonardo.

Daisy stepped nimbly around the small crowd and hurried on to the galleries.

Gallery Five was where she knew Leonardo would be waiting for her.

She reached the gallery, and found George, the security guard, standing by the open entrance. George was bald and bespectacled, and he wore the same white shirt and navy trousers that all the security guards wore.

He smiled as she walked in. “Back again, miss?”

Daisy smiled back. “I can’t seem to stay away.”

There in front of her was Leonardo—or rather Leonardo’s painting. The painting hung by itself on a display stand in the center of the room. It was the museum’s most famous painting and its best-known attraction. The tourists would flock here eventually.

Daisy was in the Italian Renaissance section of the museum—but it wasn’t a painting by that Leonardo, the famous, immortal Italian master, Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, it was a painting by Leonardo Ferrantini, a contemporary of the other Leonardo’s, but not nearly so accomplished. The painting was his only well-known work, and Daisy’s relatively minor local museum had managed to snag it.

It drew hundreds of visitors a day, and lately, Daisy had become one of those visitors.

She had come to see Leonardo—or at least the art he had shared with the world.

The painting was of a young girl—only eighteen—with honey-colored hair and warm, brown eyes that stared off into the distance with a wise, hopeful expression—as if she were seeing the future. The portrait showed her in three-quarter profile, and her slender, long-fingered hands rested on what looked like the back of a chair. Behind her stretched an expanse of trees—lush and green. The occasion of the portrait was apparently the girl’s betrothal, and the painting was simply titled, “Giovanna, in Honor of Her Wedding.”

Daisy looked at the painting now and felt a sense of peace steal over her. She felt like Giovanna—and Leonardo—had something to tell her—some secret to impart.

And Daisy was going to continue to come to see Leonardo’s great painting until she figured out what it was.

Daisy had first come to the museum on a whim one day after work—in the warmer months, the Fine Arts Museum kept later hours. She hadn’t even known that the painting existed, and her discovery of it was a delightful surprise—and she just kept coming back.

She didn’t know why she had never told Ellen she was going to the art museum. Somehow, it seemed more accurate to say that she was going to see Leonardo—rather than to see his painting. Ellen, she knew, thought she was going all this time to meet a person, and Daisy had certainly allowed her to think that.

“She looks like she knows a secret,” said a voice at Daisy’s ear. “Do you think it’s one she knows herself? Or is it one the artist told her?”

Daisy turned and looked up into brown eyes that were just as warm as Giovanna’s. A man was standing just behind her, and it wasn’t George the security guard.

He was handsome, young—about her age—and he was smiling at her.

“What was that?” Daisy said.

“The secret in her eyes,” he said. “Do you think it’s her secret or the artist’s?”

“Maybe it’s both,” Daisy replied.

She felt drawn to this stranger and wanted to talk to him a little more. But she realized he was just making polite small talk, the way people sometimes did in museums and other public spaces. She also realized that if this man was here that the tourists must be catching up to her.

Handsome as he was, it was time for Daisy to be moving on—her time with Leonardo was over.

“Enjoy the painting,” she said and left the room.

She moved on into the next gallery and was relieved to find no one there. There were usually security guards every couple of rooms, and this time she’d found one without a guard.

Daisy didn’t know why, but after talking to the man in the other room, she felt a little unsettled. She needed a few moments to herself to get back to normal.

This room also housed lesser-known artists of the Italian Renaissance, and Daisy spent several calming minutes perusing the paintings. The gallery after that featured Spanish artists of a slightly later period, and Daisy was amused to see that this room was empty also—her luck was holding. She spent some time examining the paintings at her leisure and then moved on.

By the time Daisy made it to the galleries containing paintings by the lesser-known Dutch masters, she began to get worried. All of the rooms she had passed through had been empty—there were no tourists and there were also no security guards. Daisy knew the museum took security very seriously, and she had never gone through three rooms without encountering a guard before, let alone ten.

Daisy stepped out into the hall, puzzled, but the hall was also empty. She looked into room after room—she was all alone.

In a panic, she began to run back toward the Great Hall.

She wondered if maybe there had been an emergency, and she somehow hadn’t been able to hear the alarm.

Daisy reached the main hall with its soaring skylight and its plants, and she found that it was completely empty.

There wasn’t a single tourist in sight.

She hurried down the steps to the guards’ desk by the door, but she found that those guards, too, were gone.

And so was the door.

Daisy hurried up to the wall. Where the brass-studded double doors had once stood, there was now a completely smooth, blank wall—it was as if the doors had never existed.

Daisy ran back up to the Great Hall and then hurried on to the galleries that she had been exploring before. She stood staring down the long hall and shouted.

“Hello?”

At first there was no answer. And then a head poked out from one of the galleries.

“Hello?” said the figure.

Daisy squinted. It looked like the man who had spoken to her earlier.

He stepped out into the hall.

“Hello?” the man said.

Daisy turned and ran.

She ran back to the Great Hall and on into the other wing of the museum—she knew there was an exit on that side. She hurried down the hall and ran down the stairs. But when she reached the spot where the door should have been, all she saw was another blank wall.

Daisy ran her hands over the smooth, featureless wall.

She was trapped.

She heard footsteps running down the hall, and she whirled around. Moments later, the man from Leonardo’s gallery appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Stay right where you are!” Daisy commanded, and her voice echoed in the stairwell.

“Okay,” the man said, and he held out his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m—”

“What’s going on?” Daisy demanded. “What have you done?”

“What have I done?” the man said. He stepped down onto the first step.

“I said stay where you are!” Daisy shouted.

“Okay,” the man said. He sat down on the first step, and he placed a hand on his chest. “I have the completely non-threatening name of Harvey. And from the sound of your voice, I’m guessing you’re just as confused as I am. I very genuinely have no idea what’s going on here.”

Daisy eyed him warily. “You didn’t do something to get rid of all the people?”

“No,” the man said.

“What about the doors? Did you get rid of those?”

“What? No. I don’t even know how that’s possible.”

Daisy stepped a little closer and looked at him. His brown eyes were puzzled and frank.

“Your name is Harvey?” Daisy said.

He smiled. “Yes—but my friends call me ‘H.’ ”

“And you really don’t know what happened here?”

“No. I have no idea. I’m still not one hundred percent sure that I haven’t imagined all this.”

“I know what you mean,” Daisy said. “My name’s Daisy, by the way.”

Harvey stood and held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Daisy.”

Daisy ran up the stairs and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, too. Though the circumstances are a little unusual.”

She glanced back at the bare wall that used to have a door. “Any idea what we should do next?”

Harvey shook his head. “My cell phone’s dead, which is odd because I charged it just before I left. How about yours?”

Daisy took her phone out of her purse. “Mine’s dead, too. So I guess no one from the outside is coming to help us. And these windows have heavy bars for security. I don’t think we’ll be able to smash one and get out.”

Harvey frowned in thought. “When’s the last time you remember things being normal?”

“That would be in the room with the Leonardo Ferrantini painting when I was talking to you,” Daisy said. “I left that room and suddenly everybody was gone.”

“Me, too,” Harvey said. “I left a few minutes after you did, but that’s when I lost everybody, also.”

“Maybe we should go back,” Daisy said. “Maybe we can get everything to—reset?”

“That’s just what I was thinking. And there’s a nice leather sofa in there. At the very least we’d have some place comfortable to sit.”

The two of them started down the hall.

Harvey glanced over at Daisy.

“Maybe we should hold hands,” he said. “As far as I can tell, there’s only two of us left in the world, and I don’t want to lose you.”

Daisy looked over at him. “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Harvey said. “But the offer’s always open.”

Daisy and Harvey walked back down the long hallway toward the Great Hall. They met no one on the way, and as they passed through the Great Hall, they noticed that the door was still missing. They moved on to the hallway on the other side, and they met no one there, either.

They soon reached the gallery where Giovanna’s portrait hung.

There was indeed a couch set several feet from the display stand that supported the painting, and Daisy had sat there on many occasions—the sofa was set at the perfect distance to admire the painting’s beauty.

As they stepped into the room, Harvey waved a hand over the plum leather sofa.

“Pray be seated, my lady.”

Daisy sat down and shot a glance at Harvey as he sat down beside her.

“Let me guess, Harvey,” she said. “You were the class clown in school.”

He gave her a mock glance of horror, but she could tell he wasn’t displeased.

“What makes you say that?”

“First the hand-holding joke,” Daisy said. “And now the ‘my lady’ stuff.”

“Yes—joke,” Harvey said. “And feel free to call me ‘H.’ All my friends do.”

“Why ‘H’?” Daisy asked.

“I guess it’s my attempt at being cool. ‘Harvey’ isn’t exactly a great name. And neither is ‘Harve.’ ‘H’ was the best I could come up with.”

“I’m going to call you ‘Harvey,’ ” Daisy said. “I think it’s much nicer.”

Harvey stared at her. “You’ve got to be kidding. No one has ever liked my name.”

“I do,” Daisy said. “And I’m not joking at all. Not even a little bit.”

Harvey glanced over at the portrait of Giovanna.

“Speaking of joking, Giovanna’s still sitting there smiling as if she knows a secret. What do want to bet the secret she knows is how to get out of here?”

Daisy and Harvey sat and talked for a while, and then they wandered through the galleries, admiring the paintings. They looked in all the restrooms, and they even peeked behind the doors that were marked “staff only,” and found offices in varying stages of tidiness. They tried the phones in the empty offices, too—they didn’t work, either.

Eventually, they wandered back to the room with Giovanna’s painting.

They sat down on the sofa again, and before she knew it, Daisy fell asleep.

When she woke up, she felt relaxed and comfortable.

Then she realized that her head was resting on Harvey’s shoulder.

Daisy quickly sat up.

“Sorry,” she said.

“Oh, no,” Harvey said. “I don’t mind—not at all. Feel free to rest your head on my shoulder any time.”

They both lapsed into silence.

Eventually, Harvey sighed softly. “I have a confession to make—I came here today specifically to see this painting. In fact, I’ve been coming here to see it a lot. For some reason, it speaks to me.”

Daisy smiled. “I did the same thing. In fact, I even told my friend Ellen that I came here to see Leonardo—as in the artist who painted the portrait. She thinks I’m on a date.”

Harvey shot a glance over at her. “On a date with the artist? Now who’s the class clown?”

He looked over at the painting. “I can understand what you mean, though. Giovanna’s portrait was made to commemorate her upcoming wedding. And I have a feeling it was a happy one—the wedding and the marriage.”

He paused. “My own wasn’t so happy. My wedding I mean—the marriage itself never happened.”

Daisy looked over at him. “What happened?”

Harvey looked down at his hands.

“It was about a year ago. I got left at the altar.”

“I’m so sorry,” Daisy said.

Harvey nodded. “It’s okay. I think ultimately she was right—we really weren’t suited for each other. But I wish she hadn’t chosen such a painful, public way to end things.”

“I really am sorry,” Daisy said. “That must have been devastating.”

Harvey nodded again—as if to confirm Daisy’s words and shake off a memory.

“How about you?” he said. “Married? Single? Other?”

“I almost got married once, too,” Daisy said. “His name was Dave. We got engaged—and it was a long engagement. We did a little wedding planning, and we were always talking about it. But somehow we never quite got there. It went on for years—and then we broke up. It was nothing dramatic like what happened to you. We just drifted apart.”

Daisy looked back up at the painting. “And somehow after that, I kind of gave up. I stopped looking—I stopped trying for happiness.”

Harvey smiled ruefully. “I know exactly what you mean.”

“And I think my coming here so often was another way to avoid things,” Daisy said musingly. “Here in the museum everything is perfect and beautiful—and nothing ever changes.”

A thought occurred to her suddenly, and she went on in a rush. “Giovanna over there is forever a young woman about to get married. Her portrait never changes. I’ve been frozen the same way—unable to move on.”

Harvey took a deep breath. “You said it all. I’m right there with you.”

He looked over at her. “You know, I wish we’d met under more normal circumstances.”

“Me, too,” Daisy said.

Harvey stood up. “Well, we’ve been here for hours, and it looks like we’re stuck. Should we see if the café is still here? Maybe we can find some food, even if there are no people left to serve it.”

Daisy stood up also. “Sounds good to me.”

Harvey smiled at her. “In a way, this is almost like a date—we’ve got the whole museum to ourselves, and we’re about to go for a romantic dinner, just the two of us.”

“A date?” Daisy said.

“Yes,” Harvey replied. “It’s just a very weird one.”

Daisy laughed. “Well, I agree. It sounds like a date to me.”

Harvey waved a hand toward the doorway. “After you, my lady.”

Daisy stepped out into the hall, and Harvey stepped out after her.

A moment later, they nearly collided with George the security guard.

He grinned at them. “I was wondering when you two lovebirds were finally going to get off that couch. The museum’s closing, you know.”

“What?” Daisy exclaimed.

She looked around. The hallway was full of people, many of them headed toward the Great Hall and the exit.

“How long have you been here?” Harvey asked the guard.

“All day,” George replied. “It’s my job to guard Giovanna here. She’s our most famous painting.”

Daisy stepped forward as a tourist hurried past her. “And how long have all these people been here?”

George looked at her, puzzled. “They’ve been here all day, too. Saturday’s our busiest day.”

“And it’s nearly closing time?” Harvey said. “Are you saying we’ve been in this room for hours and hours?”

George grinned. “Yes. You two seem a little out of it. You must really have been enjoying each other’s company.”

He winked at us.

“But seriously, it’s time for us to close up now. I’m going to have to ask you folks to leave—but you can come back tomorrow. We open at ten.”

Daisy looked around. “We’re free?”

“We’re free!” Harvey said. He grabbed her hand, and the two of them ran out of the museum.

They didn’t pause for breath until they had run down all of the steps outside the museum and were standing on the sidewalk in the early evening sunshine.

Daisy stared up at the big, gray building. “I can’t believe we made it out.”

“We were really lost in there, weren’t we?” Harvey said. “I thought I’d never see daylight again.”

“Do you think we were really sitting on the couch the whole time like the security guard said?” Daisy asked. “I really can’t believe that.”

“I can’t believe that, either. Maybe Giovanna cast a spell on us—or Leonardo—or both.”

“The artist and his muse,” Daisy said. “Working together.”

“Whatever happened,” Harvey said, “we can’t tell anyone about this—no one will ever believe us.”

“That’s true enough,” Daisy replied ruefully.

Harvey glanced over at her. “We’ll never be able to tell our children how we met.”

“There you go joking again.”

“Yes—joking,” Harvey said.

“I don’t know about you,” Daisy said. “But I’m starving.”

“Would you like to go to a very normal, very non-museum-related place for dinner?” Harvey asked.

“I would love that,” Daisy replied.

On the next Saturday, Daisy received another call from her friend Ellen.

“So Daisy,” Ellen said. “Justin and I saw the new Marvel movie last week, and we’re thinking of seeing it again. Would you like to join us?”

“I’m sorry—I can’t,” Daisy said. “I’m seeing Harvey this afternoon.”

“Harvey?” Ellen said. “I don’t remember hearing about him. When did you meet him?”

“Last Saturday.”

“Last Saturday?” Ellen said. “Weren’t you seeing Leonardo last Saturday?”

Daisy smiled to herself. “I was going to see Leonardo, but I met Harvey on the way.”

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

March Madness — New Short Story

The-Madness-Cafe

March Madness

“Do you come here often?”

I looked at the man sitting next to me. He had black hair and hazel eyes that had something of the wolf about them. I was about to give him a hard time about using such an old line on me, but something in his expression made me stop.

His eyes were serious—and concerned. He seemed to genuinely mean the question.

He also wasn’t bad-looking.

I had a sudden urge to check my lipstick in the metal napkin dispenser that sat next to me on the counter. I checked the impulse, however—there was no way I was going to be able to do that without his noticing—and I glanced down at my coffee cup instead. I could see a red half-circle on the white china cup. I pressed my lips together and hoped I hadn’t smudged my lipstick too badly.

“I’ve never been here before,” I said seriously, matching my tone to the look in his eyes.

The man nodded and glanced over his shoulder. “I thought not. Which begs the
question—”

“What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?” I supplied.

“Something like that.” The man smiled a little, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“A place like this,” I murmured to myself. What kind of place was it? I glanced around. There was a counter, where customers sat eating, there were booths around the perimeter, where people also sat eating, and there were big windows all around us that gave us a good view of the dark, snowy March night outside. In short, it was a perfectly normal diner—I didn’t see anything that should have been cause for concern to the man sitting next to me.

And yet, he was worried—of that I was certain.

I gave one last look around, and as I did so, I glanced as surreptitiously as I could at the metal napkin holder next to me. I could just make out my reflection, and my red lipstick didn’t seem to have been too badly smudged by the apple pie and coffee I’d had. I sneaked another peek and saw that my dark hair didn’t seem to be too badly mussed, despite the high winds outside.

I turned back to my new friend.

He was staring at me steadily. It was starting to unnerve me.

“So do you come here often?” I asked.

“Yes,” the man said. “Unfortunately, I do.”

He glanced around. “I’m Nate Devereaux, by the way. May I ask your name?”

Having a stranger ask for my name felt a little funny, but I instinctively felt like I could trust him.

“Rebecca Marbury,” I said.

“Well, Rebecca, may I ask further how you got here?”

Again, it was the kind of question that I wouldn’t usually have answered when asked by a stranger, but Nate somehow inspired confidence in me.

“I took the interstate,” I said. “Then I took my usual exit. I kept going till I hit this little country road here, and then I stopped at this place—I’ve always been curious about it.”

Nate’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Do you live around here?”

“No,” I said. “I was visiting my—”

I stopped.

“I’m visiting,” I finished.

Though I wasn’t wary of Nate, it did occur to me that it was a little strange to ask about my route.

“Why do you want to know? Are you concerned about the roads?”

Nate glanced around again, and I noticed that his eyes were fringed by dark lashes—they were very nice eyes.

“No,” he said. “I’m not actually interested in the roads. I mean, how did you get in here—in the diner?”

I was even more puzzled. “How did I get in? I just walked through the door.”

“So you can see it?” Nate said.

“Of course I can.”

“What’s the name you see on the outside?”

“The Madness Café,” I said.

“That’s the name, all right,” he said. “It’s been earned, too.”

I glanced around. “Nobody in here looks that crazy to me.”

“That’s because you don’t know them,” Nate replied. “And with any luck, you won’t get a chance to.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” he said, “that you should really get out of here right now.”

I looked down at the remains of my late-night snack. “But I haven’t paid my bill yet.”

“That’s all right. They don’t take regular money in here anyway.”

“They don’t take—” I began. “What are you talking about?”

I began to look around for the stunningly beautiful waitress who had served me. I spotted her on the far side of the diner, and I held up my hand. I thought, as I had when I’d first seen her, that there seemed to be a slight greenish tint to her hair and skin—a trick of the light, probably.

I wanted to pay my bill—not so much because I believed that Nate was right that I needed to leave the diner—but because I thought it might not be a bad idea to get away from him.

He’d seemed nice at first, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“Oh no,” Nate said, following my gaze. “No, no, no. You’re lucky you got past her this long. If she sees you take out human money, they’ll all be after you.”

He grabbed my hand and hauled me to my feet. “Come on. You’ve got to go right now.”

I just had time to grab my purse before he dragged me off.

We were headed toward the exit very quickly.

“Now wait just a minute,” I said.

“Sorry, Rebecca,” Nate replied. “This is for the best.”

Just as we were nearing the door, the lights went out.

“Oh no,” Nate said. “No, no, no.”

There was a flash of light then, and I saw three people standing very close to me—a beautiful woman with brilliant sea-green eyes, a very handsome man whose eyes seemed to glow amber, and then another man, who made a vague, gray impression before disappearing.

The flash disappeared also, and the diner was plunged into darkness.

Nate tugged on my hand. “This way! The exit’s blocked now.”

“What was that flash?” I said.

“That was me,” Nate replied. “Come on!”

We ran through the dark, and I heard a sound as if Nate had pushed open a set of swinging doors. I heard the doors close behind us, and then I heard a loud, clattering sound as if a number of pots and pans had fallen to the floor. We ran on, and soon I felt myself being pulled down a short set of stairs.

“We’re almost there,” Nate said. “Hurry!”

Suddenly, a light turned on, and the beautiful woman with the sea-green eyes was standing before us—it was the same woman who had been my waitress. Now that I had a chance to really look at her, I could tell that the greenish cast to her hair and skin was really there—I wasn’t imagining it.

I also realized that she was standing in front of a door.

“Please let us go, Saskia,” Nate said. “She stumbled in here by accident. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Saskia’s eyes darted to me. “I know what she is now. She’s valuable.”

“My name is Rebecca,” I said.

Nate ignored me. “Please, Saskia. She’s a person—not a commodity.”

She stared at us for a moment, looking from one of us to the other.

“All right,” she said at last. “You know I have a soft spot for lost innocents—kittens and humans and the like.”

“Humans?” I said.

“Thanks,” Nate said. “I won’t forget it.”

But Saskia continued to stand in front of the door.

“You can’t go out this way,” she said. “There’s a whole crowd outside waiting to grab you as you go out.”

She began to run. “Follow me.”

She led us to another door and opened it. A staircase led down into darkness.

“Just follow the stairs down,” Saskia said. “And then run through the cellar—there’s another way out. It leads into the forest. Quickly now! More are coming—I’ll distract them.”

Once the door was closed, we were in total darkness—but Nate grabbed my hand, and somehow we made it down the stairs without stumbling.

Nate seemed to know the way.

As we reached the bottom, he struck up a lighter, and a tiny flame flared to life.

A vast, dark space stretched before us.

Nate was still holding my hand.

“Stay close to me,” he said. “This cellar stretches a long way, and there’s a lot of stuff down here. But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way. I’ll get us out safely.”

“What’s going on here?” I asked. “Why is everyone in the diner suddenly after us? And why did Saskia say she has a soft spot for humans?”

I could sense Nate smiling in the dark. “They’re not after us. They’re after you.”

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“You’re different, like me,” Nate replied. “Well, actually you’re different in a different way than I am. You’re much rarer.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I’m a seer,” Nate said, and I could see a him flash a grin in the light from the lighter. “I have second sight.”

“Second sight?” I echoed. “You mean you have visions? You can see into the future?”

“Something like that,” Nate replied. “But it’s not very reliable—I can’t summon it whenever I want to, and what I see is often hard to interpret. It does, however, make me more sensitive to the supernatural in general—I can sense things other people can’t.”

There was a clang then as Nate stumbled up against something in the dark.

“Except for that,” he said ruefully. “I didn’t sense that coming.”

He stepped around the object, and we moved on through the cellar.

“So are you the seventh son of a seventh son?” It seemed to me that I had heard a phrase like that once before.

Nate grinned once more in the dark. “No—I actually have two sisters, and no brothers at all. I don’t know how the ability came to me—I just know I have it.”

“So what does that make me? Do you think I’m a seer, too?”

Nate shot a glance over at me. “No. You’re definitely something different. I’m pretty sure you’re an immune. You don’t run across those very often.”

“An immune?” I said. “I’ve never heard of that before.”

“It basically means just what it sounds like. You’re immune from all magic—that’s why the illusion spell cast on this diner doesn’t work on you.”

“Wait. What spell?” I said.

“The diner is invisible to most people—they can’t see it at all. And if they do happen to stumble close to it, there are wards that will keep them away. But you just waltzed right in—that’s probably why the others didn’t notice you at first.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Why would anybody open an invisible diner? Besides, I saw a ton of people in there—so it could hardly be invisible.”

“People?” Nate said. “I suppose you could call them that. Ordinary folks have other names for them.”

“Like what?”

“Vampire, werewolf, fae—”

“Stop,” I said. “That’s crazy.”

“I know,” Nate replied. “I agree with you. They really are just people—no need for special terms. We could just call them ‘people with special characteristics.’ ”

Nate was clearly teasing me, but at the same time I had a terrible feeling he was serious.

“So wait,” I said. “You’re saying that all of those people upstairs are actually supernatural creatures?”

“Yes.” I could hear amusement in his tone. He was clearly enjoying my shock.

“And you’re saying further that this diner is some kind of magic diner and that only supernatural creatures can get in. And somehow I can get in because I’m immune to magic.”

“Yep.”

“And you can get in because you’re a seer?”

“Yep.”

“What is Saskia?” I asked. “Is she a seer or an immune?”

“Saskia is a siren,” Nate said.

“A siren?” I said. “As in she lures sailors to their doom?”

“That’s putting things a little bluntly,” Nate said. “But, yes. You can always tell by the greenish hair.”

“I’m having a hard time believing this,” I said.

“I can see that,” Nate replied. “Well, no matter. We’ve reached the door, and we’ll be on our way out. Then you can go back to your normal existence and forget all about the Madness Café.”

He held up his lighter, and I could just see the outline of a door in front of us.

“Ordinarily, I’d say ladies first,” he said. “But under the circumstances, I think it might be better if I go first—just in case.”

He eased the door open, and instead of the snowy outdoors, we were confronted by another black expanse.

Nate swore under his breath.

“I must have gotten turned around in the dark.” He glanced over his shoulder uneasily. “However, I don’t think it’s safe to go back the way we came. We’d better keep going—I know another way out.”

We walked out into the new darkness, and Nate reached for the door behind us.

I watched as the flame from the lighter flickered just a little as the door slipped from Nate’s grasp and shut with a heavy clang.

“Nothing to worry about,” he said reassuringly. “Just a little puff of air.”

He took my hand, and we began to walk. After a moment, he paused and glanced behind him.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

We hurried on through the dark.

“Why is this place so big?” I asked. “Why would a diner have such a huge cellar?”

“Some of it is storage,” Nate said with another of his firelit grins. “The Madness Café uses some unusual ingredients. And some of it is actually tunnels—so customers can travel in and out without being seen. It might look a little strange if customers were seen traveling to a certain spot and then disappearing. But some do simply drive.”

“So people travel down here?” I said.

“Yes, ‘people,’ ” Nate replied.

He glanced over his shoulder again.

He went on quickly. “I’ve been doing a lot of talking about myself. What about you? You said you were visiting someone?”

“Yes,” I said. “My grandfather.”

I hesitated to go on.

Nate looked over at me. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s just—my grandfather—he’s not doing well. He lives up here all alone, and my parents have been coming up every weekend to check on him. They couldn’t come up this weekend, so I decided I would come for a visit.”

“You’re worried about him?”

“Yes,” I said. “He’s not sick—not physically sick, that is. But his mind is going. He has delusions—he sees things.”

Nate drew in his breath sharply. “What kind of things?”

I sighed. “Monsters. He thinks they’re trying to get in his house.”

“Monsters?” Nate said. “Vampires? Werewolves? The fae?”

“Something like that,” I replied wryly. “He’s never been that specific, though. He just calls them ‘monsters’ or ‘creatures.’ He says he can see their faces looking in his window at night.”

“Where does your grandfather live?” Nate asked quickly. “I mean, what does his house look like?”

“It’s a blue house with white trim,” I said. “Why do you want to know?”

Nate went on in a hurry. “And you said it’s close by?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled. “It’s in the woods not far from here—probably two miles away. It’s a pretty lonely spot. This diner is the only building I pass on the way.”

“Is your grandfather’s name Mitchell?” Nate asked.

“Yes,” I said. “How did you know that?”

Nate suddenly stopped, and he held up his lighter.

Not far away, I saw two points of red light gleaming back at us in the dark.

I could feel Nate freeze, and he gripped my hand more tightly.

“Don’t move,” he hissed.

“What’s—”

Nate interrupted. “Whatever happens, do not run. Stay right here next to me. You’ll be safe as long as you stay close.”

The red points were suddenly right in front of us, and I could see that they were actually eyes. The eyes were in a pale face, fine-boned yet masculine, that was framed by sleek black hair. A pair of pallid lips parted to reveal gleaming white teeth.

“Out of the way, Vlad,” Nate said. “You know this is no ordinary lighter. I can turn this little thing into a flamethrower and convert you to ashes.”

“My name is Roger.” The man sounded injured. “And I wasn’t after you anyway.”

He leaned toward me just a fraction and sniffed. “An immune. I never touch their blood. It gives me the most appalling headaches.”

“Even if you don’t want to drink her blood,” Nate said, “you might want to sell it.”

“Not at all,” Roger replied. “I have money enough as it is.”

“Then why are you down here?” Nate demanded.

“I was just stopping into the diner for the evening,” Roger said with dignity. “I have no interest in you or your friend whatsoever.”

He glanced beyond us. “I can’t say the same for him, however. Ta!”

Roger suddenly zoomed past us and disappeared into the darkness.

I looked behind us. “Him? Who’s he talking about? Do you see anyone?”

Nate peered into the black expanse behind us. “No. We’d better keep moving.”

“So what did you mean,” I asked as we started walking again, “when you asked Roger if he wanted to sell my blood?”

“I meant exactly that,” Nate replied. “The hair and blood of an immune are valuable. They can be used in all kinds of potions and spells.”

He glanced at me. “Other stuff about you might be valuable, too. That’s why we have to get you out of here. Once you’re clear of the diner, I’m confident you’ll be safe.”

“And Roger?” I asked. “What was he?”

“You really have to ask?” Nate said.

“Are you trying to say that he was a vampire?”

“That’s exactly what he was.”

“Are you serious?” I said. “The red eyes, the sharp teeth—it wasn’t just a costume?”

“You saw how fast he disappeared,” Nate said. “No ordinary human being could do that.”

There was a growl behind us, and I turned quickly.

Suddenly the man I had glimpsed in the diner—the one with the handsome face and the amber eyes—had appeared right behind us.

“Ulf!” Nate said in a cheerful tone. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

Ulf growled again. “Give me the girl and no one gets hurt.”

“Just go home, Ulf,” Nate said. “We don’t need to do this tonight.”

“I’ll wolf out,” Ulf said. “You don’t want to see me do that.”

“I’ve seen it before,” Nate replied.

The man in front of us suddenly began to grow gray hair on his face. His nose and mouth became longer, and as I watched, his teeth began to grow longer and sharper.

I stepped back in alarm.

“Now, now,” Nate said. “You’re upsetting my new friend here.”

Ulf’s growls began to grow deeper and more wolf-like, and Nate stood before the rapidly transforming creature with only his lighter.

He swiftly pulled something out of his pocket and held it up in his other hand—it looked like a ballpoint pen.

Ulf suddenly stopped growling.

“That’s right,” Nate said. “This little thing is full of liquid silver. One little spritz, and you won’t be feeling very well.”

The half-wolf, half-man creature glared balefully at Nate for just a moment. Then he turned and loped away into the darkness.

Nate turned to me. “Now you’ve met a werewolf and a vampire—as well as a siren. This is turning out to be quite a night for you, Rebecca.”

“I’m having a little trouble accepting all of this,” I said.

Nate’s gaze softened. “Don’t worry. You aren’t going crazy. You’ve really seen what you’ve seen.”

“I’m not sure that helps,” I said.

Nate took my hand, and we started walking again.

“You know,” he said, “I think it’s good you got to see this. As I was saying, I think I know your grandfather. You did say his name was Mitchell, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“Mitchell Marbury,” Nate said musingly. “That’s a good name. I’ve never heard his last name before—he just told me to call him Mitchell. And there’s a mailbox outside his house, but it doesn’t have a name on it—just a number.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’ve been hanging out with my grandfather?”

“Blue house, white trim, right?” Nate said. “In the middle of the forest with no one else around? Yes—I’ve stopped by his place on a few occasions and chatted with him. Mostly when the regulars at the Madness Café get a little too rowdy and start prowling around his house.”

“What?” I said, startled. “These people—like Roger and Ulf—have been bothering him?”

“Unfortunately, yes. But luckily your grandfather’s a tough old bird. He can take care of most of these guys on his own. But every once in a while he needs me to step in, and I do.”

Nate stopped walking and looked at me by the light of the lighter flame.

“Your grandfather’s not going crazy,” he said quietly. “He says he’s seen monsters, and he’s right. I can’t promise that his health will be good forever, but at the moment, at least, he’s not seeing things. Everything he’s reporting is real.”

I was alarmed. “So then, he’s in danger?”

“No,” Nate said. “Like I said, I can take care of these guys—they’re no problem. In fact, there’s only one denizen of the diner that I’m not sure of, since I haven’t really encountered him yet—though I did think I spotted him tonight.”

“Who is it?” I asked. “Is it another supernatural creature?”

Nate frowned. “I’m not sure exactly. He’s sort of gray and nondescript—he’s known as the Philosopher. He collects people and creatures, and he’s said to have great power.”

“He collects them?” I shivered. “How does he do that?”

“I don’t know,” Nate replied. “But luckily, I don’t think we’ll have to find out.”

He stopped walking and put out a hand in front of him, and I could see we’d reached a door.

Nate grinned. “We’re almost out. We just have one more storeroom to go through, and then we’re free of this place.”

He opened the door, and we both walked through.

Inside was darkness once again.

Suddenly, the lights came on, and I found myself blinking in the brightness.

When my eyes adjusted to the glare, I saw a man standing before us, and floating around him were three glowing spheres that were giving off a bright, golden light.

Despite the light show, the man himself was unremarkable. He was middle-aged, about average height, and his hairline was receding. He was wearing a plain, gray suit that seemed to be designed to disguise the fact that he was gaining weight around the middle. All in all, he was rather gray and ordinary, and it seemed to me that his were the final pair of eyes I had seen staring at me back in the diner.

I glanced over at Nate, who was eyeing the newcomer warily.

“Is this the Philosopher?” I said.

“I’m afraid it probably is,” Nate replied.

The man before us chortled. “Yes, yes—I am the Philosopher. How kind of you to recognize me, children. And, young man, thank you very much. I knew you would bring this charming young lady down here, and you did exactly what I’d hoped. I’ve headed you off at the pass, as it were.”

The Philosopher beamed.

“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Nate said. “Rebecca isn’t going with you.”

“Oh, but she most definitely is,” the Philosopher said.

“If it’s a fight you want, you’ll get it.” Nate moved to stand in front of me.

“Oh my, no,” the Philosopher said. “I never engage in fisticuffs. I have a bad back, you see. I dare say that if you knocked me down that I wouldn’t be able to get up again. I have my friends to fight for me instead.”

He reached into a small, gray bag he was carrying and rolled three more spheres out onto the floor. They were also gray in color, and they made a sharp, clear noise as they rolled that made them sound as if they were made of glass.

The Philosopher smiled malevolently. “My beauties will take care of you.”

The spheres stopped rolling, and I thought I could see something moving inside them—something with fur and sharp teeth.

“Wolves,” the Philosopher said by way of explanation. “Red wolves from my collection. All I have to do is break the glass to release them, and they will do my bidding.”

He lifted a hand and gestured up at the glowing spheres above us. “Just as I have harnessed the power of sunlight to follow my whims, all of the beasties in my menagerie have been ensorcelled to follow my commands.”

I stared at the snarling wolves in their little globes. Then I looked up at the strange, gray man.

“Is that what you’re planning to do to me? Put me in one of those things?”

“No, my dear.” The Philosopher smiled. “That magic won’t work on you. I really don’t know what I’m going to do with you yet. But there are so many possibilities with an immune—this really is exciting.”

I glanced beyond him. I could see a door not too far away.

I looked over at Nate. He was eyeing the door also.

The Philosopher turned to glance at the door himself.

“You are quite right, my lovelies,” he said. “That is the way out—the door to freedom as it were. But you’ll never make it. All I have to do is crack open my spheres like eggs, and the wolves will be on you in seconds.”

“You have a bad back, you say?” Nate said musingly.

“Yes, I do. It bothers me terribly. Sometimes I can barely even move.”

Nate nodded and then suddenly lunged forward. He held his forearm out in front of him, and he struck the gray man squarely in the chest.

The Philosopher fell down heavily, landing flat on his back.

“Rebecca, run!” Nate shouted.

We both ran toward the door.

Nate kicked it open, and I glanced back quickly.

The Philosopher was lying on his back, rocking from side to side like a turtle, unable to get up. The three spheres of light were swirling around overhead, and the three spheres with wolves were lying quietly on the floor.

I ran out through the door, and Nate ran after me.

“You come back here!” The Philosopher shouted after us. “You’d better not—”

Nate pulled the door shut.

The two of us were standing out in the snowy night. We had traveled pretty far from the diner, but I could see it off in the distance.

I glanced around. We were in amongst the trees, and a metal door stood behind us. It was set into a large, square building, and the building itself eventually tapered off and turned into a tunnel that led into the ground.

“That’s funny,” I said. “I never noticed that we were walking back up from the cellar.”

“Well, the ascent was pretty gradual at first,” Nate said. “And of course, you were occupied with other things.”

I looked at the closed door. “Should we run or something?”

“We don’t need to run,” Nate said. “But we should probably head back to our cars.”

“But won’t he come after us? Aren’t we in danger?”

“No, we’re good now. The Philosopher’s not going to follow us. Anything goes, pretty much, inside the diner, but outside of it, everybody has to be more careful. And someone theatrical like this guy has to be really careful. If anybody sees him and his floating spheres, an angry mob would be on him in a flash. And a group of regular people could take on him and his wolves any day. All the police would have to do is get some tranquilizer darts.”

“But what about my grandfather?” I said. “Didn’t you say supernatural creatures have been bothering him? They aren’t being careful outside the diner.”

“Yes—but they should be,” Nate replied. “And if word got out about what some individuals are doing—those same individuals might disappear in the night. They’re lucky they have me to scare them off.”

He grinned. “Besides, the Philosopher himself told us what he would do—he said there was freedom on the other side of this door. He’s the kind that follows the rules. He won’t be after us tonight.”

I took a deep breath. “We’re safe?”

“Yes.”

“That was weirdly easy—at least at the end.”

Nate grinned again. “Sometimes the direct route is the best.”

The two of us turned and began to walk back toward the diner—and our cars.

“So would you like to stop in and visit with me and my grandfather?” I said. “I know it’s late, but you could come by in the morning—maybe have breakfast with us?”

Nate glanced at me. “You don’t have to do that, you know. I help out anybody who’s in trouble. You don’t owe me anything.”

“That’s sweet of you to say,” I said. “And I have to admit, I have an ulterior motive—I’d like to see you again. And it sounds like you’re already friends with my grandfather.”

Nate chuckled. “Well, if your grandfather doesn’t mind, I’d be happy to.”

We walked on through the snow and the trees, and I suddenly had something I needed to do.

I stood up on tiptoe and kissed Nate on the cheek.

He looked startled—and pleased.

“What was that for?” he said.

“That was for looking out for my grandfather,” I said.

We continued walking, and a moment later, I kissed him again.

“And what was that for?” he said.

“That was for looking out for me.”

Nate grinned. “Here’s hoping I get a chance to look out for you again.”

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

Read Chapter One of Firebird

FIREBIRD - BOOK COVER 2 - FRONT

 

Firebird is now available in paperback! Read the first chapter below:

Chapter One

 

It was Sunday morning, and I was going to meet William.

And I was nervous.

A feeling of uneasiness had been growing on me steadily within the last month, and just as steadily I had pushed it aside. But the feeling was stronger than ever this morning, and this time I couldn’t block it out.

And so I hesitated before the door.

Things are normal now, I said to myself sternly. You no longer have visions. All of that is over.

I wasn’t having a vision, but there was a feeling—a barrier—something solid but invisible standing in my way. The way this strange feeling overwhelmed me reminded me of how I had felt when I had had visions—it overpowered my senses and threatened to blot out the reality in front of me.

This particular feeling warned me not to leave the house.

But I was determined to go—I wasn’t going to let fear run my life—no matter what had happened in the recent past.

All the same, I couldn’t help stepping quietly back to my grandmother’s office at the front of the house and peering in through the open door. GM was sitting with her back to me, her head bent as she perused a letter, her long silver braid flowing like liquid silk down her back. I had already said goodbye to her, but I had a strong urge to say it again—as if it would be the last time I would ever see her.

Don’t be ridiculous, I said to myself. What could happen in a sleepy small town like Elspeth’s Grove?

But my own memories of a little more than a month ago rose up like an uneasy spirit to answer me.

I saw a livid face, burning eyes—I heard inhuman cries—

I shut my mind against the memory and hurried out the front door before I lost my nerve.

The morning was clear and cold—it was just past Thanksgiving—and a brisk wind kicked up, whipping my pale hair across my eyes. I pulled the strands of hair away from my face carefully.

As I pulled my unruly hair back and secured it, I wondered what advice my mother would have given me on a day like today—a day on which, if I admitted it to myself, I could feel danger in the air.

I tried to close my mind to it, but the strange feeling remained.

I hurried on toward Hywel’s Plaza, which was surrounded on all sides by trees, and as I entered the wooded area, I was struck by the eerie calm of the place. There were no sounds of birds or other animals—it was as if the woods were watching, waiting for something. There were no people or houses nearby, and I broke into a sudden, panicked run.

What do you think is in these woods? I asked myself, and I found I couldn’t answer my own question. I just knew that I wanted to get away from the silence and the trees as fast as I possibly could.

I ran for what felt like an eternity before breaking out suddenly on a clearing.

Stretched before me was a vast sheet of ice surrounded by a low wall. A roof made of pipes and angles, supported by thick metal poles, extended protectively over the ice, and black matting had been laid down between the ice rink and the skate house. The rink was brand-new and had only been open for about a week.

Loud, cheerful music suddenly filled the plaza, and I could see that skaters were already out on the ice. All of the sound and motion was a pleasant contrast to the watchful silence of the trees. As I stood looking out over the big white sheet of ice, the sun dipped behind a thick bank of solid gray clouds, and its harsh glare was blunted, suffusing the area with a muted, gentle glow.

The area around the rink was fairly crowded, and the atmosphere was cheerful, happy, relaxed. And in the midst of the crowd, I spotted a familiar, well-loved figure.

I hurried forward.

William turned and smiled his crooked half smile.

A casual observer would describe William as tall, lean, dark-haired—maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. The only thing that might be said to be unusual about him were his eyes—blue was not an unusual color, but the intensity of the color in his eyes wasn’t quite human. There were other words, too, that had been used to describe him—cursed, damned, outcast—words that had real, if melodramatic meaning. There were still other words that described him—fantastical words but real nonetheless. On this particular morning my mind shied away from that last group of words—as if thinking them could somehow bring about disaster.

“You had me worried, Katie,” William said as I reached him. His voice was colored as always by an accent that I could never quite place. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”

His tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of tension in it.

I glanced at him sharply, and I could see faint lines of strain around his eyes. I was late, and that was unusual for me—but it seemed to me that William was anxious over more than just my lateness. Or was it my imagination? I shrugged the feeling off—I figured I was just projecting my own recent paranoia onto him.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just got started a little later than I meant to.”

William held out his hand, and I took it, marveling anew at the tingle that ran through me whenever he touched me. His skin was warm, and his hand was pleasantly calloused. I didn’t want to think about anything but how wonderful it was to be with him. As I had done for the past month, I decided not to tell him about the strange feeling of dread that had stolen over me.

We started toward the skate house.

“Were you worried about trying to skate today?” William asked.

“No,” I said, making an effort to be relaxed. “I wasn’t worried about skating.”

A strong gust of wind swirled around us then, causing me to stop and turn toward William. He slipped his arms around me, and I leaned against him.

There was laughter out on the ice, as skaters found themselves pushed around involuntarily by the wind.

We stood together until the wind died down, and then I went closer to the ice to watch the skaters for a few minutes—I had never actually been ice-skating before.

A little girl with braids and red mittens went flying by on miniature skates, her cheeks flushed with happiness. An even smaller girl with equally pink cheeks gave a tiny shriek and chased after the bigger girl. I wondered if the two of them were sisters.

The atmosphere at the rink seemed so happy and normal that it was hard for me to credit my fears of only a few minutes ago. Surely there was nothing dangerous in the woods that surrounded us.

“Do you think you can do that, too?” William had come up to stand beside me, and he was smiling at me now.

I glanced over at the two little girls who were now on the other side of the rink.

“I think so,” I said, smiling back at him.

We turned once more toward the skate house.

As we reached the door, William stopped and looked around suddenly, as if he’d heard something. His eyes narrowed warily.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. He gave me a reassuring smile.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m positive—it’s nothing.”

I knew William could hear things I couldn’t, and I felt a flash of panic that I quickly pushed aside. I told myself to relax—just because William had heard something that had distracted him, didn’t mean it was something dangerous. I would have to make an effort to get my imagination under control.

We continued on into the skate house and emerged a short time later with skates on our feet.

A gate stood open in the rink, and I walked over to it and paused with one hand resting on either side of the gate. The ice stretched out in front of me, white and unforgiving.

Now that I was about to step onto it, the rink suddenly seemed much bigger than I had realized, and the ice itself seemed to glow faintly, as if it were pulling all available light into its depths. It almost didn’t seem real.

I was seized powerfully by nerves.

At the same time, I felt something like relief. The fear I was currently feeling was born of the moment—it had nothing to do with the fear that had very nearly prevented me from leaving the house that morning. It was a perfectly normal fear.

As I stared at the ice, however, I suddenly saw a dark figure appear in the white surface—right by my feet. The figure was black and shifting and vaguely human in form. It looked like a human shadow, but it wasn’t mine—and it was definitely something that shouldn’t have been there. At first there was only one—and then there was another and another. The figures seemed to swim under the surface of the ice itself—dark phantom shapes that twisted and turned, as if they were trying to escape.

I backed away from the ice.

William was standing right behind me, and I bumped into him.

“Are you all right?” he asked. He took my arm, and we stepped away from the gate.

“There’s something out there—under the ice,” I said. “I can see—things.”

“Those are just shadows,” William said reassuringly. “It’s nothing to worry about. The ice can play tricks on your eyes if you’re not used to it. You’ll adjust.”

I looked back out over the ice again, and the strange shapes I’d seen had disappeared. Maybe William was right—maybe I’d just seen shadows.

“Go on out, Katie,” William said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here to catch you if you fall.”

There was more laughter from the ice rink, and I looked around. Out on the ice there were parents helping their young children, older children racing each other, smiling couples holding hands. Everyone and everything seemed so normal and down-to-earth that I wanted to join them.

For just a moment, I wished that I could be normal, too.

I stepped back to the gate. Two skaters suddenly zipped past me at what seemed like alarming speed, and I felt a little tingle of nerves again. I told myself I would be fine as long as I didn’t see any more dark shapes in the ice.

“Like I said, I’ll be right here to catch you,” William murmured.

I waited till the way was clear, and then I stepped out onto the ice. Almost immediately I began to slip, and I grabbed frantically for the wall, catching it just in time to prevent myself from falling.

I clung to the wall, my heart pounding.

William glided around to my side and leaned against the wall, his lips twitching suspiciously.

“You’re laughing at me,” I said.

“No, no, I’m not,” William said, but his smile grew broader. “I’m not laughing at you, really.”

I continued to cling to the wall.

“So, what do I do?” I asked after a moment. “I don’t actually know how to move away from here.”

William reached over and helped me to prize my hands away from the wall. Then he pulled me to a standing position. As he did so, I noticed with some irritation that his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

Over the next hour—with William’s help and with much stumbling on my part—I managed to make it all the way around the rink several times—and I even managed to move away from the safety of the wall. We kept going, and eventually, I raised my head and looked around. I realized I was moving along with everyone else on the ice and having a good time.

William gave me his crooked smile. “You’re glad you did this now, aren’t you?”

I could feel the cold air nipping at my cheeks, but the rest of me was comfortably warm. And William was beside me.

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I’m happy I did this. And I don’t just mean the ice-skating.”

William bowed his head, so I wouldn’t see his expression, but I could tell he knew what I meant.

William and I were together now, but it hadn’t been easy to get to this point—and we hadn’t been together for very long. But even though we were officially a couple, he kept limits on our time together. I still didn’t know very much about him, and that included the things he could tell me—I didn’t even know where he lived.

But he was here now—and that was all that mattered at the moment.

When William and I were done out on the ice, we went into the skate house and sat down on the benches to unlace our skates.

I could feel William’s eyes on me, and I looked up at him. There was something forlorn in his expression.

“You don’t want me to go, do you?” I said.

“No.” His voice was quiet.

“We can spend more time together, you know.”

“No, we can’t.” William was suddenly stern. “We have to limit our time together. No matter how much I wish things were different.”

“Because you think you’re cursed,” I said.

“Because I am cursed,” he replied. “All I can do is savor the time I have with you before you find someone of your own kind.”

“My own kind,” I said, shaking my head. What was my kind exactly? William insisted on seeing me as a normal girl—but I was far from normal.

The two of us put our shoes on and walked out into the cold. I was warm from my recent exertions, but a gust of wind kicked up, and I shivered. William put his arm around me.

We left the rink and entered the woods nearby. Another shudder ran through me as I thought once again of the fact that I didn’t know where William lived. What if he had no home? What if he slept outside in the frozen night? Of course, I didn’t know if William ever actually had to sleep. And I didn’t know if he felt the cold—though somehow I doubted that he did. But I still didn’t like the idea of William’s not having a proper home.

“William, why won’t you tell me where you live?” I asked.

“Because you don’t need to know.”

I felt frustration welling up within me—William gave me that same answer whenever I asked him anything about himself. I knew today would be no different, but I suddenly felt very stubborn.

I persisted. “Do you have a job? Where do you go while I’m at school?”

“Katie, it’s not important for you to know these things. You know we need distance. You’re too young to get deeply involved. I’m much, much older than you are, and I can barely remember my past. Like I said, someday you’ll leave me for one of your own kind. Leave the heartache to me.”

“William, answer my questions,” I said. “Answer just one. Tell me what neighborhood you live in.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this territory before. Why are you bringing all of this up again?”

“I worry about you,” I said. “I want you to live somewhere safe and comfortable. I want to know you’re okay.”

William gave me a searching look. “It’s your grandmother, isn’t it? She’s uncertain about me. You must have told her by now that I don’t go to school, and she wonders what I do with my life. She must wonder if I’m good for you.”

I felt a brief stab of guilt when he mentioned my grandmother.

“It’s not GM,” I said.

“She doesn’t ask about me?”

“No.”

William looked puzzled. “Are you telling me that your grandmother has never had any questions about me?”

“I wouldn’t say she’s never had any questions about you,” I replied.

“But?”

“But she hasn’t had any questions about you since we returned from Russia.”

“Why not?” William demanded.

“Because GM doesn’t know you’re in Elspeth’s Grove. She thinks you stayed in Russia.”

“What?” William stopped walking and stared at me, incredulous.

He continued to stare at me.

“Your grandmother doesn’t know I’m in Elspeth’s Grove,” he said slowly. “So she doesn’t know that we’ve been meeting?”

“No—I was afraid she would forbid me to see you.”

“Katie, I insist on seeing your grandmother,” William said sternly. “I want her to know I’m here. I need to—”

He stopped suddenly. He turned to look behind us.

I turned too, trying to see what had attracted his attention, but we appeared to be completely alone. William held up a hand.

As I stood looking around me, I noticed that the surrounding woods were quiet and somehow watchful—just as they’d been when I’d walked through them earlier.

I thought once again of the fact that there were no houses nearby.

William continued to stare at a fixed point somewhere off in the trees.

“William, what’s—”

“Katie, get out of here,” he whispered. He didn’t turn to look at me.

“William?”

“Katie, go! Run!”

I turned to do as he asked, panicked by the tone in his voice.

I had not gone very far when someone stepped out of the trees and blocked my way.

I looked up and found myself staring into the calm, pale eyes of a vampire.

His name was Innokenti, and I had last seen him in the Pure Woods in Krov, Russia.

He was friendly. Sort of.

“Hello, little one.” His voice, as I remembered only too well, was silky and just a little superior. His brown hair fell in a straight line to his chin, and his clothes were as picturesquely antique as they had been the last time I’d seen him—he appeared to have stepped out of the Middle Ages.

Innokenti’s presence here in these woods was deeply disturbing. I had believed that I would never see him again after I left Russia—and I certainly hadn’t expected him to show up today. Seeing him again was like being revisited by a nightmare.

“Innokenti,” I said, taking a step back. “What are you doing here?”

He bared his teeth in a smile that was far from reassuring—especially since it allowed me to see the unusually sharp outline of his teeth.

“My friend and I,” he said, “have traveled thousands of miles to pay you and William a visit. How fortunate we are to find the two of you together.”

Innokenti sent a significant nod over my shoulder, and I turned.

Standing next to William now was a man I didn’t recognize—young, tall, dark of hair and eye, dressed all in black. William was staring at the young man with dislike, his body tense, his expression set into harsh lines. For his part, the newcomer was smiling malevolently at William.

Innokenti gestured to the young man. “Shall we go over so I may make introductions?”

As Innokenti and I walked over to them, I had to remind myself that Innokenti had never actually done me any harm—but no matter how hard I tried to calm myself, I remained uneasy.

As we reached William and the stranger, I could see a muscle working in William’s jaw, and the stranger’s smile deepened as he looked me over with unpleasant scrutiny. His eyes met mine, and I was startled by just how dark they were—they were eyes with the depth of night in them.

“Innokenti, get out of here,” William said angrily. “And take him with you.”

“Now, now, William,” Innokenti replied mildly. “This is a friendly visit.” He gestured to the stranger. “The two of you know each other, of course. But introductions are in order for the young lady.”

Innokenti gave me another one of his unnerving smiles. “Katie Wickliff, may I present my associate, Anton. You’ll have to forgive us—we don’t go in for surnames much in our community. Many of us don’t like to dwell on the past.”

I looked to Innokenti. “Is Anton a—”

“Vampire?” Innokenti said. “Yes.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Katie,” Anton said. His voice was dark and smoky, and I had the feeling that he was laughing at me.

He lifted my hand with his ice-cold fingers and kissed it, and then he stared at me steadily as he let my hand drop. He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

I found myself momentarily at a loss for words.

Anton’s amusement deepened. “Too stunned to speak? I have that effect on a lot of women.”

William grabbed Anton’s coat and shook him. “Leave her alone.”

Malice lit up Anton’s dark eyes. “I’m simply saying hello.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Innokenti said. “I believe you’re upsetting young Katie. Our mission here is a benevolent one. We should all be pleasant to one another.”

William rounded on Innokenti. “Why did you bring him? If you wanted things to be pleasant, you should have left him at home.”

“William, your attitude isn’t very charming,” Innokenti admonished gently. “You should put your antagonism aside as Anton has done. This mission we are on is one of the gravest importance. Anton knows that, and that’s why he very graciously volunteered to come with me.”

“Why did he have to come at all?” William said angrily. “If you truly need to speak to me, you should have come alone.”

“William, you weren’t listening,” Innokenti replied patiently. “We have come here to see you and the little one, and this is no routine visit we are on. I am a messenger here. Anton has accompanied me in order to look out for my welfare.”

“He’s your bodyguard?” William said derisively. “What do you need protection from? Me?”

“Vampires are strong, but we are not completely invulnerable, William—you know that. And the situation is a dangerous one—for both of you.”

William’s face grew grim.

“Say what you need to say. But leave Katie out of this.”

Innokenti spread out his hands apologetically.

“I’m afraid I can’t leave Katie out of anything,” he said. “She is involved no matter how much we all might wish otherwise.”

William folded his arms. “Make this quick. Then get out of here.”

“Very well.” Innokenti’s pale eyes grew hard. “You both have your duties, and you’re both avoiding them. This is unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable to whom?” William asked. “To you?”

“William, you know I do not speak for myself,” Innokenti replied. “I speak on behalf of others. You, William, belong in Krov in the vampire colony there. You have special abilities—you alone amongst our number can fight the kost.”

“Are you being troubled by a kost at the moment?” William asked.

Innokenti gave William a mirthless smile. “No—not at the moment. But our kind grows thirstier. You know what that means.”

Innokenti’s pale eyes shifted to me. “And you, little one, you too, have a purpose. You are the Little Sun, and you are also destined to fight the kost. You owe us no particular allegiance, but your heritage confers certain obligations and responsibilities—ones that cannot lightly be ignored.”

“Little Sun?” Anton said with a mocking lilt. “So you’re the one. How about I call you ‘Sunshine’?”

“It’s true we can both fight the kost,” William said, ignoring Anton. “What do you want from us?”

“I propose that you and Katie return with me now,” Innokenti replied. “You can return to the colony, William, and Katie can live in the house that was vacated by her cousin, Odette. You can live near one another, and possibly even work with one another whenever a kost rears its ugly head. But I would recommend that you put an end to your romance. Such a relationship will not meet with much approval.”

“And what if we refuse to go with you?” William asked.

Innokenti sighed. “I would advise against it. But in the event that the two of you refuse, I would return to the colony and explain to them, with a heart full of regret, that I was unable to make you see reason.”

“You would not attempt to force us to return with you?” William asked.

Innokenti’s eyebrows rose. “William, we are vampires. We are not barbarians.”

William shook his head. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. You’ve admitted that the kost is not an immediate threat. And I can return to Russia any time I wish—you know that. And you’ve also admitted that Katie owes you no allegiance. So what does it matter to you where she lives? This must be about something else. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Innokenti fixed William with a piercing stare.

“William, you may not believe this, but you matter to us, and we know that this human girl here matters to you. Anton and I are here to help you both. Forces we don’t entirely understand yet are gathering. And the two of you would make convenient pawns.”

William was unmoved. “Then tell me what you do know. Give me all the information you have, and maybe I’ll consider coming with you. Katie isn’t to be involved in this—at all.”

Anger flashed in Innokenti’s cool eyes. “Katie will be involved in this no matter what you want. There’s a price on the girl’s head, and there are two separate groups after her. I am telling you that she is not safe.”

“Who’s after her?”

“I cannot tell you that, William. I am merely a humble servant of a greater power—and I have told you too much already. I have only been authorized to tell you that it’s in your best interests to return with us.”

“Then the answer is ‘no,’” William said. “I’m not going with you and neither is Katie.”

Innokenti’s eyes flicked to me. “Perhaps you should let Katie decide for herself. After all, she is the one in the greatest danger.”

William took a step toward Innokenti. “I won’t allow Katie to be tricked into anything by you. That cousin of hers that you mentioned so cavalierly a few moments ago tried to kill her. If Katie goes back, her cousin may return, too, and try to finish what she started. Krov is far too dangerous for Katie. She’s safer here with me.”

“What do you say, little one?”

There was a strong hint of warning in Innokenti’s voice, but I met his pale gaze unflinchingly.

“I want to stay here with William.”

Innokenti suddenly seemed to radiate rage. He turned toward William.

“I’ll give you one last chance. The girl doesn’t really know enough of the world to make a reasonable decision, but you know something of the true darkness that exists out there. If you don’t care about your own safety, then you should at least consider hers.”

“We’re not going with you,” William said curtly.

Innokenti spread out his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As you wish, William. But remember this: I tried to help you.”

He backed up a few paces, and his eyes flicked to me once more. “You cannot remain with him, little one. They will not allow it.”

He melted into the woods. Anton gave me a wink and a smile, and then he, too, vanished into the trees.

I looked up at William. He was staring at the spot where Anton and Innokenti had just stood, and his face seemed set in stone.

After a moment, he looked around at me.

“We need to go to your house now. I need to be able to protect you.”

*******************************

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