Alicia looked as uncomfortable as I felt. "I see. Well, this room's occupied. It's - " She frowned and did a double take. "It's Veronica's. It looks like she left."

I finally managed to speak. "That's why we thought it was empty," I said hastily. "There was nothing in here."

Alicia thankfully seemed to have forgotten about our compromising position. "That's weird. She didn't formally check out. I mean, she paid in advance in cash, but still. It's so strange."

We made a hurried escape of our own after that, once again feeding Alicia lines about how we'd be in touch. Neither of us spoke much when we got in the car. I was lost in my own thoughts, which were equal parts frustration over Veronica and confusion over Adrian. I refused to acknowledge the latter, though, and opted for my usual tactic. The sooner that moment was forgotten, the better. I was pretty sure I could keep telling myself that. Some part of me - nearly as snarky as Adrian - suggested I pick up a book on denial the next time I was in the self-help section.

"Another dead end," I said once we were on the road. I texted Ms. Terwilliger: V's gone. No need for action. Her response came a few minutes later: We'll keep trying. I could practically feel her disappointment through the display on my phone. She wasn't the only one. Adrian seemed particularly melancholy on the drive back. He responded whenever I spoke, but it was clear he was distracted.

When he dropped me off at Amberwood later that night, I found everything mercifully quiet. No crises, no dangerous missions. It felt like it had been ages since I had a moment to myself, and I curled up on my bed, taking solace in the ordinary tasks of homework and reading. I fell asleep with my face on my calculus book.

I experienced one of those nonsensical dreams that everyone has. In it, my family's cat could talk, and he was driving Adrian's Mustang. He asked me if I wanted to take a road trip to Birmingham. I told him I had a lot of homework to do but that if he wanted to go to Fargo, I'd consider it.

We were in the middle of negotiating who'd pay for gas when the dream suddenly dissolved to blackness. A cold feeling swept over me, followed by a feeling of dread that rivaled the time Adrian and I had faced down Strigoi in his apartment. A woman's laughter rolled around me, foul and sickening, like some sort of toxic smoke. A voice came out of the darkness, echoing in my mind.

She's kept you well hidden, but it can't stay that way forever. You can't conceal power like yours forever. I've caught your trail. I'll find you.

Hands suddenly reached out of the darkness for me, wrapping around my throat and cutting off my air. I screamed and woke up in my own bed, surrounded in books. I'd left the light on, and it chased some of the dream's terror away. But only some. Sweat poured off me, making my shirt stick to me. I touched my neck, but there was nothing wrong with it. The garnet hung in place but not my cross.

No need to fear a dream, I thought. It didn't mean anything, and really, with everything going on lately, it was a wonder I didn't have nightmares more often. But thinking back on it, I wasn't so sure. There had been something so terrible and real about it, a horror that seemed to reach into my very soul.

I didn't want to sleep after that, so I made a cup of coffee and tried to read again. It worked for a while, but somewhere around four, my body couldn't take it anymore. I fell asleep on my books again, but this time, my sleep stayed dream free.

Chapter Sixteen

I GAVE MS. TERWILLIGER a full report on our trip to the inn the next morning. We met at Spencer's, and in a rare show of early rising, Adrian joined us. "I've got a study group meeting soon," he explained. His mood was a lot better, with no mention of yesterday's . . . indiscretion.

Even though there wasn't much to tell, lines of worry creased her face as she heard our story. The true panic came when I mentioned my dream. Ms. Terwilliger's eyes went wide, and she gripped her coffee cup so tightly, I thought it would break.

"She found out," she murmured. "Whether it was that Alicia girl or some other way, Veronica found out about you. I should never have sent you. I thought you'd slip underneath her radar if the other girls were charmed, but I was wrong. I was selfish and naive. It would've been better if she knew I was on to her from the very beginning. You're sure you were masking Sydney's appearance?" That was to Adrian.

"Positive," he said. "Everyone we talked to, all the girls and even Alicia . . . none of them would have a clear idea of what Sydney looks like."

"Maybe she's been spying on you," I suggested. "And saw us together. I haven't been in disguise around here."

"Maybe," Ms. Terwilliger conceded. "But we also know she was active in Los Angeles. She would have to spend considerable time stalking her victims, which wouldn't give her the chance to come here and watch me extensively. Even with her powers, she can't teleport." Her expression hardened with resolve. "Well, there's nothing to be done now but damage control. She doesn't seem to know exactly where you are yet or that you're even connected to me. I'll make you another charm to try to boost this one, but it may not work if she's found a way to reach out to you. And in the meantime, don't worry about offense anymore. You need to focus on defense - particularly invisibility spells. Your best protection against Veronica at this point is for her simply not to find you if she comes looking around Palm Springs."

I'd continued reading the advanced offense spells, despite her warnings. With this new development, though, I knew she was right about defense being more important. Still, I couldn't shake the worry that Veronica had discovered me by watching Ms. Terwilliger, which in turn made me fear for my teacher's safety. "You keep saying she's not after you . . . but are you really sure?"

"She'll avoid me if she can," said Ms. Terwilliger, sounding confident. "I have the power but not the youth and beauty she's after. And even she would draw the line at taking on her sister. It's the only remnant of human decency she has left."

"Will she still have that attitude when you confront her?" asked Adrian.

Ms. Terwilliger shook her head. "No. Then anything goes. I'd like to meet with you tonight to practice a couple other defensive tactics."

I eyed her carefully. "Are you up for that? No offense, ma'am, but you already look exhausted."

"I'll be fine. Meet me at the park again around ten. I'll get Weathers to let you go. We must keep you safe." She stared off into space for several moments and then focused on me again. "In light of this development . . . it wouldn't be a bad idea for you to find some, ah, more basic means of defense as well."

Tags: Richelle Mead Bloodlines Fantasy
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