Saturday evening (which is really our Saturday morning) is usually a lazy time. Girls hang around the dorm in pj's and nappy, uncombed hair, sleepily eating bowls of cereal or cold popcorn and staring at reruns on the different wide-screen TVs in the dorm's main room. So it's not surprising that Shaunee and Erin gave me confused, groggy frowns when I grabbed a granola bar and a can of brown pop (not diet, eesh) and appeared between their glazed stares and the TV.

"What?" Erin said.

"Z, why are you so awake?" Shaunee said.

"Yeah, it's not healthy to be perky so early," Erin said.

"Exactly, Twin. Each person has only so much perkiness. If they use it up early in the day, then it's gone and you're left with grumpiness," Shaunee said.

"I'm not perky. I'm busy." Thankfully, that stopped their lecture. "I'm going to go to the library to research some ritual stuff." That wasn't a lie. They just assumed I was talking about the coming Full Moon Ritual when I was actually talking about a ritual to make poor undead-dead Stevie Rae un-undead. "While I'm doing that, I want you guys to find Damien and Erik and tell them that we're going to meet under the tree by the wall at-" I glanced at my watch. "It's five thirty right now. I should be done with my research by seven-ish. So how about we meet at seven fifteen?"

" 'Kay," the Twins said.

"But how come we're meeting?" Erin said.

"Oh, sorry. Erik is going to be representing earth tomorrow." I swallowed around the sudden clog in my throat. The Twins looked equally sad. Clearly, none of us had really gotten over Stevie Rae, even those of us who believed she was dead. "Erik thought that it might be a good idea to practice casting a circle before the actual ritual. You know, what with all the rest of us having elemental affinities and him not. I thought it was a good idea, too."

"Yeah ... sounds good ...," the Twins mumbled.

"Stevie Rae wouldn't want us to mess up a ritual because we're missing her," I said. "She'd be all Y'all better act right and not make big ol' butts outta yourselves." My twang made the Twins smile.

"We'll be there, Z," Shaunee said.

"Good, then we'll go watch 300 after that," I said.

That really made them grin.

"Oh, and would you two be sure that all the elemental candles are there?"

"Will do, Z," Erin said.

"Thanks, guys."

"Hey, Z," Shaunee called across the room when I was almost out the door. I paused and looked back at them.

"Nice boots," Erin said.

I grinned and held out one foot. I was wearing jeans, but they were the kind that rolled up to just under my knees, which meant that everyone had a clear view of the sparkling Christmas trees that adorned the side of each boot. I was also sporting Damien's snowman scarf, which really was soft as a cashmere dream. A couple of girls sitting on the love seat closest to the door made noises like they thought the boots were cute, too, and I saw the Twins share a smug, told-ya-so look.

"Thanks, the Twins gave them to me for my birthday." I said, loud enough for Shaunee and Erin to hear. They blew me kisses as I went out the door.

I munched my granola bar and headed to the media center in the main school building. Surprisingly, I was feeling okay about the Full Moon Ritual. Sure, it would be weird not having Stevie Rae represent earth, but I'd be surrounded by my friends. It was still us, even if we were short one of us. The school was even more deserted today than it had been during the past month, which made sense. It was Christmas, and even though fledglings have to stay in physical contact with adult vamps, we are allowed to stay off campus for up to a full day. (There's some kind of pheromone vamps secrete that semi-controls the physical Change taking place within us and allows us to complete the metamorphosis into adult vamps, or at least allows some of us to do that. The rest of us die.) So lots of kids were spending Christmas with their human families.

As I'd expected, the library was deserted. I didn't need to worry about it being locked up and alarmed like a typical school. Vamps, with their psychic and physical powers, didn't need locks to make us act right. Actually, I wasn't for sure what they did when a fledgling did something typically teenage and moronic. Rumor had it that the vamps would banish the miscreant (hee-hee, "miscreant," that was one of Damien's vocab words) for varying periods of time. Which meant the kid could get really sick-as in drowning in his own disintegrating bodily tissues and dying.

All in all, it was best not to piss off the vampyres. Naturally, I'd made an enemy of the most powerful High Priestess at our school. Sometimes being me was good-like when Erik was kissing me or when I was hanging with my friends-but mostly being me was a big ball of stress and angst. I searched the musty old books in the metaphysical section of the library (as you can probably imagine, at this particular library it was a big section). It was slow going because I'd decided not to use the computer catalogue search engine. The last thing I needed was to leave an electronic trail that screamed: Zoey Redbird is trying to find information about fledglings that die and have been reanimated as bloodsucking fiends by a High Priestess who is an evil control freak with some kind of as-yet-unknown Master Plan! No. Even I knew that would not be a good idea.

I'd been there for more than an hour and was getting frustrated by my snail-like pace. I really wished I could ask for Damien's help. Not only was the kid smart and a fast reader, he was also seriously good at research. I was clutching Rituals to Heal Body and Spirit and trying to get a top-shelf copy of a leather-bound old-as-dirt book titled Combating Evil with Spells and Rituals, when a strong arm reached up and plucked it easily from over my head. I turned around and almost banged dorkishly right into Loren Blake.

"Combating Evil, huh? Interesting choice of reading material." His nearness did not help my nerves. "You know me" (which he really didn't). "I like to be prepared." His brow wrinkled in confusion. "Are you expecting an attack of evil?"

"No!" I said way too quickly. So I laughed, trying for a gay, carefree tone (gay, hee-hee), but was sure I came across as totally fake. "Well, a couple months ago no one expected Aphrodite to lose control of a bunch of blood-sucking vampyre spirits and she did. So I figured, you know, better safe than sorry." God, I'm a moron.

"Guess that makes sense. So there's nothing specific you're preparing for?" I wondered at the sharp interest in his eyes. "Nope," I said nonchalantly. "Just trying to do a good job as leader of the Dark Daughters."

He glanced at the rituals book I was holding. "You know that those rituals are only for adult vampyres, don't you? When fledglings get sick there is, unfortunately, only one reason behind it. Their bodies are rejecting the Change and they will die." Then he added in a gentler voice, "You're not feeling ill, are you?"

"Oh, gosh, no!" I said hastily. "I'm fine. It's just, well-" I hesitated, grasping for an excuse. With a sudden inspiration I blurted, "It's embarrassing to admit, but I thought I'd do some extra studying for when I become a High Priestess."

Loren smiled. "Why would that be embarrassing to admit? I wouldn't have imagined you as one of those silly women who think being well read and well educated is an embarrassment." I felt my cheeks start to get warm-he'd called me a "woman," which was way better than him calling me a fledgling or a kid. He always made me feel so grown, so womanly. "Oh, no, that's not it. It's embarrassing because it sounds kinda conceited to assume that I'm going to actually be a High Priestess someday."

"I think that assumption is just good common sense and justifiable self-confidence." His smile warmed till I swear I could feel the heat of it against my skin. "I always have been drawn to confident women." God, he made my toes squidge.

"You don't have any idea how special you are, do you, Zoey? You're unique. Not like the rest of the fledglings. You're a goddess among those who think themselves demigods." When his hand caressed the side of my face, lingering on the tattoos that framed my eyes, I thought I'd melt into the bookshelves. "I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright. Who art as black as hell, as dark as night."

"What's that from?" His touch had made my body all tingly and my head woozy, but I did manage to recognize the deep cadence his amazing voice took on when he was reciting poetry.

"Shakespeare," he murmured as his thumb brushed softly over the line of tattoos that decorated my cheekbone.

"It's from one of the sonnets he wrote to the Dark Lady, who was his true love. We know, of course, that he was a vampyre. But we believe the true love of his life was a young girl who had been Marked and who died as a fledgling without completing the Change."

"I thought adult vampyres weren't supposed to have relationships with fledglings." We were so close that I didn't have to speak much above a whisper for him to hear me.

"We're not supposed to. It's highly improper. But sometimes there's an attraction that happens between two people that transcends the vampyre-fledgling boundary, as well as age and propriety. Do you believe in that kind of attraction, Zoey?"

He was talking about us! We were staring into each other's eyes, and I felt lost in him. His tattoos were a bold pattern of intricate slashing lines that gave the impression of lightning bolts, and they went perfectly with his dark hair and eyes. He was so insanely handsome and so much older that he made me feel at the same time incredibly attracted to him and scared to death that I was playing with something so far beyond what I'd ever experienced that it could easily spiral out of control. But the attraction was there-and if he was right, it definitely transcended the vampyre-fledgling boundary. So much so that Erik had even noticed how Loren looked at me.

Erik... Guilt washed through me. He would just die if he could see what was going on between Loren and me. A mean little thought snaked through my mind, Erik isn't here to see me, and I drew in a deep, shaky breath and heard myself say, "Yes. I believe in that kind of attraction. Do you?"

"I do now." His smile was sad. It made him look suddenly very young and handsome and so vulnerable that my guilty thoughts of Erik evaporated. I wanted to take Loren in my arms and tell him it would be all right. I was just getting up the nerve to move even closer to him when his next words surprised me so much that I forgot about his little-lost-boy smile. "I came back yesterday because I knew it was your birthday." I blinked in shock. "You did?"

He nodded, still caressing my cheek with his finger. "I had been looking for you when I ran into you and Erik." His eyes darkened and his voice went deep and harsh. "I didn't like seeing his hands all over you." I hesitated, not sure how to respond to that. I was embarrassed as hell that he'd seen Erik and me making out. Still, even though what we'd been doing had been embarrassing to be caught at, we hadn't really done anything wrong. Erik was, after all, my boyfriend, and what he and I did together wasn't really any of Loren's business. But staring into his eyes I realized that I might want it to be Loren's business. As if he could read my mind he took his hand from my face and looked away from me. "I know. I don't have any right to be angry at you for being with Erik. It's not even my business." Slowly, I touched his chin, turning his face back to me so that he could meet my eyes. "Do you want it to be your business?"

"More than I can tell you," he said. Then he dropped the book-he'd still been holding it-and framed my face in his hands, so that his thumbs rested close to my lips and his fingers splayed back into my hair. "I believe it's my turn for a birthday kiss."

He claimed my mouth and at the same time it felt like he claimed my body and soul. Okay, Erik was a good kisser. And I've been kissing Heath since I was in third grade and he was in fourth, so Heath's kisses were familiar and good. Loren was a man. When he kissed me there was none of the awkward hesitation I was used to. His lips and tongue said he knew exactly what he wanted and he also knew how to get it. And a weird, magical thing happed to me. I wasn't just some kid anymore when I kissed him back. I was a woman, mature and powerful, and I knew what I wanted and how to get it, too.

When the kiss ended both of us were breathing hard. Loren still held my face in his hands, but he'd moved away just far enough so that we could look into each other's eyes again.

"I shouldn't have done that," he said.

"I know," I said, but that didn't stop me from staring boldly at him. I was still clutching the stupid healing rituals and spells book with one hand, but my other hand was resting on his chest. Slowly I spread my fingers so that they slid within the open neck of his button-up shirt to touch his naked skin. He shivered and I felt that shiver somewhere deep inside me.

"This is going to be complicated," he said.

"I know," I repeated.

"But I don't want to stop."

"Neither do I," I said.

"No one can know about us. At least not yet."

"Okay." I nodded, not sure what there was to know about, but understanding that the thought of his asking me to sneak around with him made a weird knot form in the pit of my stomach. He kissed me again. This time his lips were sweet and warm and very, very gentle, and I felt the weird knot dissolving. "I almost forgot," he whispered against my lips. "I have something for you." He gave me one more fast kiss and then fished into the pocket of his black slacks for something. Smiling, he pulled out a small gold jeweler's box. Holding it out to me he said, "Happy birthday, Zoey." My heart was flopping ridiculously around in my chest as I opened the box-and gasped. "Ohmygod! They're amazing!" Diamond stud earrings glittered at me like a beautiful, captured dream. They weren't huge and gaudy, but small and dainty and so clear and sparkly that they almost hurt my eyes. For an instant I saw Erik's sweet smile as he'd given me the snowman necklace, and then heard my grandma's voice in my conscience telling me that there's no way I should accept such an expensive gift from a man, but Loren's voice drowned out the image of Erik along with Grandma's warning.

"I saw them and they reminded me of you-perfect and exquisite and fiery."

"Oh, Loren! I've never had anything so beautiful." I leaned into him, tilting my face up, and he bent and put his arms around me and kissed me until I thought the top of my head would explode.

"Go ahead, put them on," Loren whispered to me while I was still trying to get my breath back after our kiss. I hadn't put any earrings on when I got up, so it only took me a second to stick them through my ears.

"There's an old beveled mirror over in the reading corner. Come look at them." We stuck the books back on the shelf and Loren took my hand, guiding me over to the cozy corner of the media center that had a big, overstuffed sofa and two matching comfy chairs. On the wall between them was a large, obviously antique, gold-framed beveled mirror. Loren stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders so that both of us were reflected in the mirror. I pushed my thick hair behind my ears and turned my head from side to side so that the flickering gaslights caught the diamonds' facets so they glistened brilliantly.

"They're beautiful," I said.

Loren squeezed my shoulders and pulled me back against him. "Yes, you are," he said. Then, still holding my gaze in the mirror, he bent to nuzzle one of my diamond decorated earlobes and whispered, "I think you've done enough studying for one day. Come back to my room with me." I watched my eyes become all heavy-lidded as he kissed my neck, following the path my tattoos took down to my shoulder. Then I realized what it was he was really asking and a jolt of fright bolted through my body. He wanted me to go back to his room and have sex! I didn't want to do that! Okay, well, maybe I did. In theory anyway. But to actually lose my virginity to this incredibly hot, experienced, man-right now? Today? I gulped for air and stepped kinda awkwardly out of his arms. "I-I can't." While my mind was flailing around for something else I could say that wouldn't sound moronic and juvenile, the grandfather clock that stood solemnly behind the sofa began bonging out seven bells and I felt a rush of relief. "I can't because I made plans to meet Shaunee and Erin and the rest of the Prefect Council at seven fifteen so we can practice for the ritual tomorrow night."

Loren smiled. "You are a diligent little Leader of the Dark Daughters, aren't you? Then it will have to be another time." He moved to me, and I thought he'd kiss me again. Instead he touched my face, briefly caressing my tattoos. His touch made me all shivery and breathless. "If you change your mind I'll be in the poet's loft. You know where that is?"

I nodded, still finding it hard to speak. Everyone knew the in-residence Poet Laureate had the whole third floor of the professors' quarters building all to himself. More than once I'd listened to the Twins fantasize about wrapping up like giant presents and having themselves delivered to the lurve loft (as they call it).

"Good. You should know I'll be thinking about you, even if you don't decide to come put me out of my misery."

He had already turned and was walking away when I found my voice. "But I really can't come, so when am I going to see you again?"

He looked over his shoulder at me, smiling his sexy, knowing smile. "Don't worry, my little High Priestess, I will come to you."

When he was gone I sat heavily on the couch. My legs felt like rubber and my heart was beating so hard it hurt. Shakily, I touched one of the diamond earrings. It felt cold, unlike the snowman made of pearls that rested accusatorily around my neck and the silver bracelet that was clasping my wrist. They felt hot. I put my face in my hands and said miserably, "I think I'm turning into a ho."