Ysabeau rose but remained where she was. "Now is not the time to teach her, Matthew."
"You see, it's not just that I could kil you outright," he continued, ignoring his mother. His black eyes were mesmerizing. "I could feed on you slowly, taking your blood and letting it replenish, only to begin again the next day."
His grip moved from my chin to circle my neck, and his thumb stroked the pulse at my throat as if he were gauging just where to sink his teeth into my flesh.
"Stop it," I said sharply. His scare tactics had gone on long enough.
Matthew dropped me abruptly on the soft carpet. By the time I felt the impact, the vampire was across the room, his back to me and his head bowed.
I stared at the pattern on the rug beneath my hands and knees.
A swirl of colors, too many to distinguish, moved before my eyes.
They were leaves dancing against the sky-green, brown, blue, gold.
"It's your mom and dad," Sarah was explaining, her voice tight. "They've been killed. They're gone, honey."
I dragged my eyes from the carpet to the vampire standing with his back to me.
"No." I shook my head.
"What is it, Diana?" Matthew turned, concern momentarily pushing the predator away.
The swirl of colors captured my attention again-green, brown, blue, gold. They were leaves, caught in an eddy on a pool of water, falling onto the ground around my hands.
A bow, curved and polished, rested next to a scattering of arrows and a half-empty quiver.
I reached for the bow and felt the taut string cut into my flesh.
"Matthew," Ysabeau warned, sniffing the air delicately.
"I know, I can smel it, too," he said grimly.
He's yours, a strange voice whispered. You mustn't let him go.
"I know," I murmured impatiently.
"What do you know, Diana?" Matthew took a step toward me.
Marthe shot to my side. "Leave her," she hissed. "The child is not in this world."
I was nowhere, caught between the terrible ache of losing my parents and the certain knowledge that soon Matthew, too, would be gone.
Be careful, the strange voice warned.
"It's too late for that." I raised my hand from the floor and smashed it into the bow, snapping it in two. "Much too late."
"What's too late?" Matthew asked.
"I've fal en in love with you."
"You can't have," he said numbly. The room was utterly silent, except for the crackling of the fire. "It's too soon."
"Why do vampires have such a strange attitude toward time?" I mused aloud, stil caught in a bewildering mix of past and present. The word "love" had sent feelings of possessiveness through me, however, drawing me to the here and now. "Witches don't have centuries to fal in love.
We do it quickly. Sarah says my mother fel in love with my father the moment she saw him. I've loved you since I decided not to hit you with an oar on the City of Oxford's dock." The blood in my veins began to hum. Marthe looked startled, suggesting she could hear it, too.
"You don't understand." It sounded as if Matthew, like the bow, might snap in two.
"I do. The Congregation wil try to stop me, but they won't tel me who to love." When my parents were taken from me, I was a child with no options and did what people told me. I was an adult now, and I was going to fight for Matthew.
"Domenico's overtures are nothing compared to what you can expect from Peter Knox. What happened today was an attempt at rapprochement, a diplomatic mission.
You aren't ready to face the Congregation, Diana, no matter what you think. And if you did stand up to them, what then? Bringing these old animosities to the surface could spin out of control, expose us to humans. Your family might suffer." Matthew's words were brutal, meant to make me stop and reconsider. But nothing he said outweighed what I felt for him.
"I love you, and I'm not going to stop." Of this, too, I was certain.
"You are not in love with me."
"I decide who I love, and how, and when. Stop tel ing me what to do, Matthew. My ideas about vampires may be romantic, but your attitudes toward women need a major overhaul."
Before he could respond, his phone began to hop across the ottoman. He swore an oath in Occitan that must have been truly awe-inspiring, because even Marthe looked shocked. He reached down and snagged the phone before it could skitter onto the floor.
"What is it?" he said, his eyes fixed on me.
There were faint murmurs on the other end of the line.
Marthe and Ysabeau exchanged worried glances.
"When?" Matthew's voice sounded like a gunshot. "Did they take anything?" My forehead creased at the anger in his voice. "Thank God. Was there damage?"
Something had happened in Oxford while we were gone, and it sounded like a robbery. I hoped it wasn't the Old Lodge.
The voice on the other end of the phone continued.
Matthew passed a hand over his eyes.
"What else?" he asked, his voice rising.
There was another long silence. He turned away and walked to the fireplace, his right hand splayed flat against the mantel.
"So much for diplomacy." Matthew swore under his breath. "I'l be there in a few hours. Can you pick me up?"
We were going back to Oxford. I stood.
"Fine. I'l cal before I land. And, Marcus? Find out who else besides Peter Knox and Domenico Michele are members of the Congregation."
Peter Knox? The pieces of the puzzle began to click into place. No wonder Matthew had come back to Oxford so quickly when I'd told him who the brown wizard was. It explained why he was so eager to push me away now, too.
We were breaking the covenant, and it was Knox's job to enforce it.
Matthew stood silently for a few moments after the line went dead, one hand clenched as if he were resisting the urge to beat the stone mantel into submission.
"That was Marcus. Someone tried to break in to the lab. I need to go back to Oxford." He turned, his eyes dead.
"Is everything al right?" Ysabeau shot a worried look in my direction.
"They didn't make it through the security controls. Stil , I need to talk to the university officials and make sure whoever it was doesn't succeed the next time." Nothing that Matthew was saying made sense. If the burglars had failed, why wasn't he relieved? And why was he shaking his head at his mother?
"Who were they?" I asked warily.
"Marcus isn't sure."
That was odd, given a vampire's preternatural y sharp sense of smel . "Was it humans?"
"No." We were back to the monosyl abic answers.
"I'l get my things." I turned toward the stairs.
"You aren't coming. You're staying here." Matthew's words brought me to a standstil .
"I'd rather be in Oxford," I protested, "with you."
"Oxford's not safe at the moment. I'l be back when it is."
"You just told me we should return there! Make up your mind, Matthew. Where is the danger? The manuscript and the witches? Peter Knox and the Congregation? Or Domenico Michele and the vampires?"
"Were you listening? I am the danger." Matthew's voice was sharp.
"Oh, I heard you. But you're keeping something from me.
It's a historian's job to uncover secrets," I promised him softly. "And I'm very good at it." He opened his mouth to speak, but I stopped him. "No more excuses or false explanations. Go to Oxford. I'l stay here."
"Do you need anything from upstairs?" Ysabeau asked.
"You should take a coat. Humans wil notice if you're wearing only a sweater."
"Just my computer. My passport's in the bag."
"I'l get them." Wanting a respite from al the de Clermonts for a moment, I pelted up the stairs. In Matthew's study I looked around the room that held so much of him.
The armor's silvery surfaces winked in the firelight, holding my attention while a jumble of faces flashed through my mind, the visions as swift as comets through the sky.
There was a pale woman with enormous blue eyes and a sweet smile, another woman whose firm chin and square shoulders exuded determination, a man with a hawkish nose in terrible pain. There were other faces, too, but the only one I recognized was Louisa de Clermont, holding dripping, bloody fingers in front of her face.
Resisting the vision's pul helped the faces fade, but it left my body shaking and my mind bewildered. The DNA report had indicated that visions were likely to come. But there'd been no more warning of their arrival than there had been last night when I floated in Matthew's arms. It was as if someone had pul ed the stopper on a bottle and my magic -released at last-was rushing to get out.
Once I was able to jerk the cord from the socket I slid it into Matthew's bag, along with the computer. His passport was in the front pocket, as he'd said it would be.
When I returned to the salon, Matthew was alone, his keys in his hands and a suede barn jacket draped across his shoulders. Marthe muttered and paced in the great hal .
I handed him his computer and stood far away to better resist the urge to touch him once more. Matthew pocketed his keys and took the bag.
"I know this is hard." His voice was hushed and strange.
"But you need to let me take care of it. And I need to know that you're safe while I'm doing that."
"I'm safe with you, wherever we are."
He shook his head. "My name should have been enough to protect you. It wasn't."
"Leaving me isn't the answer. I don't understand al of what's happened today, but Domenico's hatred goes beyond me. He wants to destroy your family and everything else you care about. Domenico might decide this isn't the right time to pursue his vendetta. But Peter Knox? He wants Ashmole 782, and he thinks I can get it for him. He won't be put off so easily." I shivered.
"He'l make a deal if I offer him one."
"A deal? What do you have to trade?"
The vampire fel silent.
"Matthew?" I insisted.
"The manuscript," he said flatly. "I'l leave it-and you- alone if he promises the same. Ashmole 782 has been undisturbed for a century and a half. We'l let it remain that way."
"You can't make a deal with Knox. He can't be trusted." I was horrified. "Besides, you have al the time you need to wait for the manuscript. Knox doesn't. Your deal won't appeal to him."
"Just leave Knox to me," he said gruffly.
My eyes snapped with anger. "Leave Domenico to you.
Leave Knox to you. What do you imagine I'm going to do?
You said I'm not a damsel in distress. So stop treating me like one."
"I suppose I deserved that," he said slowly, his eyes black, "but you have a lot to learn about vampires."
"So your mother tel s me. But you may have a few things to learn about witches, too." I pushed the hair out of my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. "Go to Oxford.
Sort out what happened there." Whatever happened that you won't share with me. "But for God's sake, Matthew, don't negotiate with Peter Knox. Decide how you feel about me-not because of what the covenant forbids, or the Congregation wants, or even what Peter Knox and Domenico Michele make you afraid of."
My beloved vampire, with a face that would make an angel envious, looked at me with sorrow. "You know how I feel about you."
I shook my head. "No, I don't. When you're ready, you'l tel me."
Matthew struggled with something and left it unsaid.
Wordlessly he walked toward the door into the hal . When he reached it, he gave me a long look of snowflakes and frost before walking through.
Marthe met him in the hal . He kissed her softly on both cheeks and said something in rapid Occitan.
"Compreni, compreni," she said, nodding vehemently and looking past him at me.
"Merces amb tot meu c??r," he said quietly.
"Al rebeire. Mefi. "
"T'afortissi." Matthew turned to me. "And you'l promise me the same thing-that you'l be careful. Listen to Ysabeau."
He left without a glance or a final, reassuring touch.
I bit my lip and tried to swal ow the tears, but they spil ed out. After three slow steps toward the watchtower stairs, my feet began to run, tears streaming down my face. With a look of understanding, Marthe let me go.
When I came out into the cold, damp air, the de Clermont standard was snapping gently to and fro and the clouds continued to obscure the moon. Darkness pressed on me from every direction, and the one creature who kept it at bay was leaving, taking the light with him.
Peering down over the tower's ramparts, I saw Matthew standing by the Range Rover, talking furiously to Ysabeau.
She looked shocked and grabbed the sleeve of his jacket as if to stop him from getting in the car.
His hand was a white blur as he pul ed his arm free. His fist pounded, once, into the car's roof. I jumped. Matthew had never used his strength on anything bigger than a walnut or an oyster shel when he was around me, and the dent he'd left in the metal was alarmingly deep.
He hung his head. Ysabeau touched him lightly on the cheek, his sad features gleaming in the dim light. He climbed into the car and said a few more words. His mother nodded and looked briefly at the watchtower. I stepped back, hoping neither of them had seen me. The car turned over, and its heavy tires crunched across the gravel as Matthew pul ed away.
The Range Rover's lights disappeared below the hil .
With Matthew gone, I slid down the stone wal of the keep and gave in to the tears.
It was then that I discovered what witchwater was al about.