"What about this Fernando? Wil he help Marcus?"
Matthew's face grew secretive. "Fernando was my first choice for marshal, but he turned me down. It was he who recommended Marcus."
"Why?" From the way Miriam spoke, the vampire was a respected warrior.
"Marcus reminds Fernando of Philippe. If there is war, we'l need someone with my father's charm to convince the vampires to fight not only witches but other vampires, too."
Matthew nodded thoughtful y, his eyes on the rough outlines of his empire. "Yes, Fernando wil help him. And keep him from making too many mistakes."
When we returned to the kitchen-Matthew in search of his newspaper and me in pursuit of an early lunch-Sarah and Em were just back from the grocery store. They unpacked boxes of microwave popcorn as wel as tins of mixed nuts and every berry available in October in upstate New York. I picked up a bag of cranberries.
"There you are." Sarah's eyes gleamed. "Time for your lessons."
"I need more tea first, and something to eat," I protested, pouring the cranberries from one hand to the other in their plastic bag. "No magic on an empty stomach."
"Give me those," Em said, grabbing the bag. "You're squashing them, and they're Marcus's favorite."
"You can eat later." Sarah pushed me in the direction of the stil room. "Stop being such a baby and get moving."
I turned out to be as hopeless at spel s now as when I was a teenager. Unable to remember how they started, and given my mind's tendency to wander, I garbled the order of the words with disastrous results.
Sarah set a candle on the stil room's wide table. "Light it," she commanded, turning back to the indescribably stained grimoire.
It was a simple trick that even a teenage witch could manage. When the spel emerged from my mouth, however, either the candle smoked without the wick's catching light or something else burst into flames instead. This time I set a bunch of lavender on fire.
"You can't just say the words, Diana," Sarah lectured once she'd extinguished the flames. "You have to concentrate. Do it again."
I did it again-over and over. Once the candle wick sputtered with a tentative flame.
"This isn't working." My hands were tingling, the nails blue, and I was ready to scream in frustration.
"You can command witch fire and you can't light a candle."
"My arms move in a way that reminds you of someone who could command witchfire. That's not the same thing, and learning about magic is more important than this stuff,"
I said, gesturing at the grimoire.
"Magic is not the only answer," Sarah said tartly. "It's like using a chain-saw to cut bread. Sometimes a knife wil do."
"You don't have a high opinion of magic, but I have a fair amount of it in me, and it wants to come out. Someone has to teach me how to control it."
"I can't." Sarah's voice was tinged with regret. "I wasn't born with the ability to summon witchfire or command witchwater. But I can damn wel see to it that you can learn to light a candle with one of the simplest spel s ever devised."
Sarah was right. But it took so long to master the craft, and spel s would be no help if I started to spout water again.
While I returned to my candle and mumbled words, Sarah looked through the grimoire for a new chal enge.
"This is a good one," she said, pointing to a page mottled with brown, green, and red residues. "It's a modified apparition spel that creates what's cal ed an echo -an exact duplicate of someone's spoken words in another location. Very useful. Let's do that next."
"No, let's take a break." Turning away, I picked up my foot to take a step.
The apple orchard was around me when I set it down again.
In the house Sarah was shouting. "Diana? Where are you?"
Matthew rocketed out the door and down the porch steps. His sharp eyes found me easily, and he was at my side in a few rapid strides.
"What is this about?" His hand was on my elbow so that I couldn't disappear again.
"I needed to get away from Sarah. When I put my foot down, here I was. The same thing happened on the driveway the other night."
"You needed an apple, too? Walking into the kitchen wouldn't have been sufficient?" The corner of Matthew's mouth twitched in amusement.
"No," I said shortly.
"Too much al at once, ma lionne?"
"I'm not good at witchcraft. It's too . . ."
"Precise?" he finished.
"It takes too much patience," I confessed.
"Witchcraft and spel s may not be your weapons of choice," he said softly, brushing my tense jaw with the back of his hand, "but you will learn to use them." The note of command was slight, but it was there. "Let's find you something to eat. That always makes you more agreeable."
"Are you managing me?" I asked darkly.
"You've just now noticed?" He chuckled. "It's been my ful - time job for weeks."
Matthew continued to do so throughout the afternoon, retel ing stories he'd gleaned from the paper about lost cats up trees, fire-department chili cook-offs, and impending Hal oween events. By the time I'd devoured a bowl of leftovers, the food and his mindless chatter had done their work, and it was possible to face Sarah and the Bishop grimoire again. Back in the stil room, Matthew's words came back to me whenever I threatened to abandon Sarah's detailed instructions, refocusing my attempts to conjure fire, voices, or whatever else she required.
After hours of spel casting-none of which had gone particularly wel -he knocked on the stil room door and announced it was time for our walk. In the mudroom I flung on a thick sweater, slid into my sneakers, and flew out the door. Matthew joined me at a more leisurely pace, sniffing the air appreciatively and watching the play of light on the fields around the house.
Darkness fel quickly in late October, and twilight was now my favorite time of day. Matthew might be a morning person, but his natural self-protectiveness diminished at sunset. He seemed to relax into the lengthening shadows, the fading light softening his strong bones and rendering his pale skin a touch less otherworldly.
He grabbed my hand, and we walked in companionable silence, happy to be near each other and away from our families. At the edge of the forest, Matthew sped up and I deliberately hung back, wanting to stay outdoors as long as possible.
"Come on," he said, frustrated at having to match my slow steps.
"No!" My steps became smal er and slower. "We're just a normal couple taking a walk before dinner."
"We're the least normal couple in the state of New York,"
Matthew said with a smile. "And this pace won't even make you break a sweat."
"What do you have in mind?" It had become clear during our previous walks that the wolflike part of Matthew enjoyed romping in the woods like an oversize puppy. He was always coming up with new ways to play with my power so that learning how to use it wouldn't seem like a chore. The dul , dutiful stuff he left to Sarah.
"Tag." He shot me a mischievous look that was impossible to resist and took off in an explosion of speed and strength. "Catch me."
I laughed and darted behind, my feet rising from the ground and my mind trying to capture a clear image of reaching his broad shoulders and touching them. My speed increased as the vision became more precise, but my agility left a lot to be desired. Simultaneously using the powers of flight and precognition at high speed made me trip over a shrub. Before I tumbled to the ground, Matthew had scooped me up.
"You smel like fresh air and wood smoke," he said, nuzzling my hair.
There was an anomaly in the forest, felt rather than seen.
It was a bending of the fading light, a sense of momentum, an aura of dark intention. My head swiveled over my shoulder.
"Someone's here," I said.
The wind was blowing away from us. Matthew raised his head, trying to pick up the scent. He identified it with a sharp intake of breath.
"Vampire," he said quietly, grabbing my hand and standing. He pushed me against the trunk of a white oak.
"Friend or foe?" I asked shakily.
"Leave. Now. " Matthew had his phone out, pushing the single number on speed dial that connected him to Marcus.
He swore at the voice-mail recording. "Someone is tracking us, Marcus. Get here-fast." He disconnected and pushed another button that brought up a text-message screen.
The wind changed, and the skin around his mouth tightened.
"Christ, no." His fingers flew over the keys, typing in two words before he flung the phone into the nearby bushes.
He turned, grabbing my shoulders. "Do whatever you did in the stil room. Pick up your feet and go back to the house.
Immediately. I'm not asking you, Diana, I'm tel ing you."
My feet were frozen and refused to obey him. "I don't know how. I can't."
"You wil ." Matthew pushed me against the tree, his arms on either side and his back to the forest. "Gerbert introduced me to this vampire a long time ago, and she isn't to be trusted or underestimated. We spent time together in France in the eighteenth century, and in New Orleans in the nineteenth century. I'l explain everything later. Now, go."
"I'm not leaving without you." My voice was stubborn.
"Who is Juliette?"
"I am Juliette Durand." The melodious voice, accented with hints of French and something else, came from above.
We both looked up. "What trouble you two have caused."
A stunning vampire was perched on a thick branch of a nearby maple. Her skin was the color of milk with a splash of coffee, and her hair shone in a blend of brown and copper. Clad in the colors of autumn-brown, green, and gold-she looked like an extension of the tree. Wide hazel eyes sat atop slanted cheekbones, and her bones implied a delicacy that I knew misrepresented her strength.
"I've been watching you-listening, too. Your scents are al tangled up together." She made a quiet sound of reproof.
I didn't see her leave the branch, but Matthew did. He'd angled his body so that he would be in front of me when she landed. He faced her, lips curled in warning.
Juliette ignored him. "I have to study her." She tilted her head to the right and lifted her chin a touch, staring at me intently.
She frowned back.
I glanced at him in concern, and Juliette's eyes fol owed mine.
She was imitating my every move. Her chin was jutting out at precisely the same angle as mine, her head was held at exactly the same incline. It was like looking into a mirror.
Panic flooded my system, fil ing my mouth with bitterness. I swal owed hard, and the vampire swal owed, too. Her nostrils flared, and she laughed, sharp and hard as diamonds.
"How have you resisted her, Matthew?" She took a long, slow breath. "The smel of her should drive you mad with hunger. Do you remember that frightened young woman we stalked in Rome? She smel ed rather like this one, I think."
Matthew remained silent, his eyes fixed on the vampire.
Juliette took a few steps to the right, forcing him to adjust his position. "You're expecting Marcus," she observed sadly. "I'm afraid he's not coming. So handsome. I would have liked to see him again. The last time we met, he was so young and impressionable. It took us weeks to sort out the mess he'd made in New Orleans, didn't it?"
An abyss opened before me. Had she kil ed Marcus?
Sarah and Em?
"He's on the phone," she continued. "Gerbert wanted to be sure that your son understood the risk he's taking. The Congregation's anger is directed only at the two of you- now. But if you persist, others wil pay the price as wel ."
Marcus wasn't dead. Despite the relief, my blood ran cold at the expression on her face.
There was stil no response from Matthew.
"Why so quiet, my love?" Juliette's warm voice belied the deadness of her eyes. "You should be glad to see me. I'm everything you want. Gerbert made sure of that."
He stil didn't answer.
"Ah. You're silent because I've surprised you," Juliette said, her tone strangely fractured between music and malice. "You've surprised me, too. A witch?"
She feinted left, and Matthew swiveled to meet her. She somersaulted through the empty space where his head had been and landed at my side, fingers around my throat. I froze.
"I don't understand why he wants you so much." Juliette's voice was petulant. "What it is that you do? What did Gerbert fail to teach me?"
"Juliette, let her be." Matthew couldn't risk a move in my direction for fear she'd snap my neck, but his legs were rigid with the effort to stay stil .
"Patience, Matthew," she said, bending her head.
I closed my eyes, expecting to feel teeth.
Instead cold lips pressed against mine. Juliette's kiss was weirdly impersonal as she teased my mouth with her tongue, trying to get me to respond. When I didn't, she made a sound of frustration.
"That should have helped me understand, but it didn't."
Juliette flung me at Matthew but kept hold of one wrist, her razor-sharp nails poised above my veins. "Kiss her. I have to know how she's done it."