I didn't need to be a vampire to hear the outburst on the other end of the line. He dropped my wrist and handed me the phone.
"Peter Knox!" Sarah cried. Matthew's eyes closed as if the sound hurt his eardrums. "How long has he been hanging around?"
"Since the beginning," I said, my voice wavering. "He was the brown wizard who tried to push his way into my head."
"You didn't let him get very far, did you?" Sarah sounded frightened.
"I did what I could, Sarah. I don't exactly know what I'm doing, magic-wise."
Em intervened. "Honey, a lot of us have problems with Peter Knox. More important, your father didn't trust him- not at al ."
" M y father?" The floor shifted under my feet, and Matthew's arm circled my waist, keeping me steady. I wiped at my eyes but couldn't remove the sight of my father's misshapen head and gashed torso.
"Diana, what else happened?" Sarah said softly. "Peter Knox should scare the socks off you, but there's more to it than that."
My free hand clutched at Matthew's arm. "Somebody sent me a picture of Mom and Dad."
The silence stretched on the other end of the line. "Oh, Diana," Em murmured.
"That picture?" Sarah asked grimly.
"Yes," I whispered.
Sarah swore. "Put him back on the phone."
"He can hear you perfectly from where he's standing," I remarked. "Besides, anything you have to say to him you can say to me, too."
Matthew's hand moved from my waist to the smal of my back. He began to rub it with the heel of his hand, pressing into the rigid muscles until they started to relax.
"Both of you listen to me, then. Get far, far away from Peter Knox. And that vampire had better see that you do, or I'm holding him responsible. Stephen Proctor was the most easygoing man alive. It took a lot to make him dislike someone-and he detested that wizard. Diana, you wil come home immediately."
"I wil not, Sarah! I'm going to France with Matthew."
Sarah's far less attractive option had just convinced me.
There was silence.
"France?" Em said faintly.
Matthew held out his hand.
"Matthew would like to speak to you." I handed him the phone before Sarah could protest.
"Ms. Bishop? Do you have cal er ID?"
I snorted. The brown phone hanging on the kitchen wal in Madison had a rotary dial and a cord a mile long so that Sarah could wander around while she talked. It took forever to simply dial a local number. Cal er ID? Not likely.
"No? Take down these numbers, then." Matthew slowly doled out the number to his mobile and another that presumably belonged to the house, along with detailed instructions on international dialing codes. "Cal at any time."
Sarah then said something pointed, based on Matthew's startled expression.
"I'l make sure she's safe." He handed me the phone.
"I'm getting off now. I love you both. Don't worry."
"Stop tel ing us not to worry," Sarah scolded. "You're our niece. We're good and worried, Diana, and likely to stay that way."
I sighed. "What can I do to convince you that I'm al right?"
"Pick up the phone more often, for starters," she said grimly.
When we'd said our good-byes, I stood next to Matthew, unwil ing to meet his eyes. "Al this is my fault, just like Sarah said. I've been behaving like a clueless human."
He turned away and walked to the end of the sofa, as far from me as he could get in the smal room, and sank into the cushions. "This bargain you made about magic and its place in your life-you made it when you were a lonely, frightened child. Now, every time you take a step, it's as though your future hinges on whether you manage to put your foot down in the right place."
Matthew looked startled when I sat next to him and silently took his hands in mine, resisting the urge to tel him it was going to be al right.
"In France maybe you can just be for a few days-not trying, not worrying about making a mistake," he continued.
"Maybe you could rest-although I've never seen you stop moving long enough. You even move in your sleep, you know."
"I don't have time to rest, Matthew." I was already having second thoughts about leaving Oxford. "The alchemy conference is less than six weeks away. They're expecting me to deliver the opening lecture. I've barely started it, and without access to the Bodleian there's no chance of finishing it in time."
Matthew's eyes narrowed speculatively. "Your paper is on alchemical il ustrations, I assume?"
"Yes, on the al egorical image tradition in England."
"Then I don't suppose you would be interested in seeing my fourteenth-century copy of Aurora Consurgens. It's French, regrettably."
My eyes widened. Aurora Consurgens was a baffling manuscript about the opposing forces of alchemical transformation-silver and gold, female and male, dark and light. Its il ustrations were equal y complex and puzzling.
"The earliest known copy of the Aurora is from the 1420s."
"Mine is from 1356."
"But a manuscript from such an early date won't be il ustrated," I pointed out. Finding an il uminated alchemical manuscript from before 1400 was as unlikely as discovering a Model-T Ford parked on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
"This one is."
"Does it contain al thirty-eight images?"
"No. It has forty." He smiled. "It would seem that previous historians have been wrong about several particulars."
Discoveries on this scale were rare. To get first crack at an unknown, fourteenth-century il ustrated copy of Aurora Consurgens represented the opportunity of a lifetime for a historian of alchemy.
"What do the extra il ustrations show? Is the text the same?"
"You'l have to come to France to find out."
"Let's go, then," I said promptly. After weeks of frustration, writing my keynote address suddenly seemed possible.
"You won't go for your own safety, but if there's a manuscript involved?" He shook his head rueful y. "So much for common sense."
"I've never been known for my common sense," I confessed. "When do we leave?"
"An hour." This was no spur-of-the-moment decision.
He'd been planning it since I'd fal en asleep the night before.
He nodded. "There's a plane waiting at the airstrip by the old American air force base. How long wil it take you to get your things together?"
"That depends on what I need to bring with me," I said, my head spinning.
"Nothing much. We won't be going anywhere. Pack warm clothes, and I don't imagine you'l consider leaving without your running shoes. It wil be just the two of us, along with my mother and her housekeeper."
"Matthew," I said faintly, "I didn't know you had a mother."
"Everybody has a mother, Diana," he said, turning his clear gray eyes to mine. "I've had two. The woman who gave birth to me and Ysabeau-the woman who made me a vampire."
Matthew was one thing. A houseful of unfamiliar vampires was quite another. Caution about taking such a dangerous step pushed aside some of my eagerness to see the manuscript. My hesitation must have shown.
"I hadn't thought," he said, his voice tinged with hurt. "Of course you have no reason to trust Ysabeau. But she did assure me that you would be safe with her and Marthe."
"If you trust them, then I do, too." To my surprise, I meant it -in spite of the niggling worry that he'd had to ask them if they planned on taking a piece out of my neck.
"Thank you," he said simply. Matthew's eyes drifted to my mouth, and my blood tingled in response. "You pack, and I'l wash up and make a few phone cal s."
When I passed by his end of the sofa, he caught my hand in his. Once again the shock of his cold skin was counteracted by an answering warmth in my own.
"You're doing the right thing," he murmured before he released me.
It was almost laundry day, and my bedroom was draped with dirty clothes. A rummage through the wardrobe yielded several nearly identical pairs of black pants that were clean, a few pairs of leggings, and half a dozen long-sleeved T- shirts and turtlenecks. There was a beat-up Yale duffel bag on top of it, and I jumped up and snagged the strap with one hand. The clothes al went into the old blue-and-white canvas bag, along with a few sweaters and a fleece pul over. I also chucked in sneakers, socks, and underwear, along with some old yoga clothes. I didn't own decent pajamas and could sleep in those. Remembering Matthew's French mother, I slipped in one presentable shirt and pair of trousers.
Matthew's low voice floated down the hal . He talked first to Fred, then to Marcus, and then to a cab company. With the bag's strap over my shoulder, I maneuvered myself awkwardly into the bathroom. Toothbrush, soap, shampoo, and a hairbrush al went inside, along with a hair dryer and a tube of mascara. I hardly ever wore the stuff, but on this occasion a cosmetic aid seemed a good idea.
When I was finished, I rejoined Matthew in the living room. He was thumbing through the messages on his phone, my computer case at his feet. "Is that it?" he asked, eyeing the duffel bag with surprise.
"You told me I didn't need much."
"Yes, but I'm not used to women listening to me when it comes to luggage. When Miriam goes away for the weekend, she packs enough to outfit the French Foreign Legion, and my mother requires multiple steamer trunks.
Louisa wouldn't have crossed the street with what you're carrying, never mind leave the country."
"Along with having no common sense, I'm not known for being high maintenance either."
Matthew nodded appreciatively. "Do you have your passport?"
I pointed. "It's in my computer bag."
"We can go, then," Matthew said, his eyes sweeping the rooms one last time.
"Where's the photo?" It seemed wrong to just leave it.
"Marcus has it," he said quickly.
"When was Marcus here?" I asked with a frown.
"While you were sleeping. Do you want me to get it back for you?" His finger hovered over a key on his phone.
"No." I shook my head. There was no reason for me to look at it again.
Matthew took my bags and managed to get them and me down the stairs with no mishaps. A cab was waiting outside the col ege gates. Matthew stopped for a brief conversation with Fred. The vampire handed the porter a card, and the two men shook hands. Some deal had been struck, the particulars of which would never be disclosed to me.
Matthew tucked me into the cab, and we drove for about thirty minutes, leaving the lights of Oxford behind us.
"Why didn't we take your car?" I asked as we headed into the countryside.
"This is better," he explained. "There's no need to have Marcus fetch it later."
The sway of the cab was rocking me to sleep. Leaning against Matthew's shoulder, I dozed.
At the airport we were airborne soon after we'd had our passports checked and the pilot filed the paperwork. We sat opposite each other on couches arranged around a low table during the takeoff. I yawned every few moments, ears popping as we climbed. Once we reached cruising altitude, Matthew unsnapped his seat belt and gathered up some pil ows and a blanket from a cabinet under the windows.
"We'l be in France soon." He propped the pil ows at the end of my sofa, which was about as deep as a twin bed, and held the blanket open to cover me. "Meanwhile you should get some sleep."
I didn't want to sleep. The truth was, I was afraid to. That photograph was etched on the inside of my eyelids.
He crouched next to me, the blanket hanging lightly from his fingers. "What is it?"
"I don't want to close my eyes."
Matthew tossed al the pil ows except one onto the floor.
"Come here," he said, sitting beside me and patting the fluffy white rectangle invitingly. I swung around, shimmied down the leather-covered surface, and put my head on his lap, stretching out my legs. He tossed the edge of the blanket from his right hand to his left so that it covered me in soft folds.
"Thank you," I whispered.
"You're welcome." He took his fingers and touched them to his lips, then to mine. I tasted salt. "Sleep. I'l be right here."
I did sleep, heavy and deep with no dreams, waking only when Matthew's cool fingers touched my face and he told me we were about to land.
"What time is it?" I asked, now thoroughly disoriented.
"It's about eight," he said, looking at his watch.
"Where are we?" I swung to a seated position and rooted for my seat belt.
"Outside Lyon, in the Auvergne."
"In the center of the country?" I asked, imagining the map of France. He nodded. "Is that where you're from?"
"I was born and reborn nearby. My home-my family's home-is an hour or two away. We should arrive by midmorning."
We landed in the private area of the busy regional airport and had our passports and travel documents checked by a bored-looking civil servant who snapped to attention the moment he saw Matthew's name.
"Do you always travel this way?" It was far easier than flying a commercial airline through London's Heathrow or Paris's Charles de Gaul e airport.
"Yes," he said without apology or self-consciousness.
"The one time I'm entirely glad that I'm a vampire and have money to burn is when I travel."
Matthew stopped behind a Range Rover the size of Connecticut and fished a set of keys out of his pocket. He opened the back door, stowing my bags inside. The Range Rover was slightly less deluxe than his Jaguar, but what it lacked in elegance it more than made up for in heft. It was like traveling in an armored personnel carrier.
"Do you real y need this much car to drive in France?" I eyed the smooth roads.
Matthew laughed. "You haven't seen my mother's house yet."
We drove west through beautiful countryside, studded here and there with grand chateaus and steep mountains.
Fields and vineyards stretched in al directions, and even under the steely sky the land seemed to blaze with the color of turning leaves. A sign indicated the direction of Clermont-Ferrand. That couldn't be a coincidence, in spite of the different spel ing.
Matthew kept heading west. He slowed, turned down a narrow road, and pul ed to the side. He pointed off to the distance. "There," he said. "Sept-Tours."
In the center of rol ing hil s was a flattened peak dominated by a crenel ated hulk of buff and rose stone.
Seven smal er towers surrounded it, and a turreted gatehouse stood guard in front. This was not a pretty, fairy- tale castle made for moonlit bal s. Sept-Tours was a fortress.
"That's home?" I gasped.
"That's home." Matthew took his phone out of his pocket and dialed a number. "Maman? We're almost there."
Something was said on the other end, and the line went dead. Matthew smiled tightly and pul ed back onto the road.
"She's expecting us?" I asked, just managing to keep the tremor out of my voice.
"And this is al right with her?" I didn't ask the real question- Are you sure it's okay that you're bringing a witch home? -but didn't need to.
Matthew's eyes remained fixed on the road. "Ysabeau doesn't like surprises as much as I do," he said lightly, turning on to something that looked like a goat track.
We drove between rows of chestnut trees, climbing until we reached Sept-Tours. Matthew steered the car between two of the seven towers and through to a paved courtyard in front of the entrance to the central structure. Parterres and gardens peeked out to the right and left, before the forest took over. The vampire parked the car.
"Ready?" he asked with a bright smile.
"As I'l ever be," I replied warily.
Matthew opened my car door and helped me down.
Pul ing at my black jacket, I looked up at the chateau's imposing stone façade. The forbidding lines of the castle were nothing compared to what awaited me inside. The door swung open.
"Courage," Matthew said, kissing me gently on the cheek.