It took a few hours to figure out what time we needed to leave at as well as schedule a meeting place and time with my friends. The guys handled the breakdown of all the hoses and lines that tethered the trailer to the park's RV pad hookup, while we females worked within the trailer to clean up the last of the dirty dishes, finish the laundry and secure everything in the cabinets and fridge.
By ten o'clock that night, we were on our way. As usual, Dad insisted on driving the truck. Once again, Mom was annoyed by his seemingly chauvinistic attitude, and I braced myself for yet another of her venting sessions about it. But this time she surprised me by staying quiet and holed up in her room with her dog, probably to eke out every last moment she could spend with Lucy. Emily was pretty unsteady on her feet while we were on the move, so she tried to sleep through most of the trip. Tristan and I opted to watch movies together in the living room.
And though we still couldn't agree on Tristan's need to go after Mr. Williams, when Tristan reached out and covered my hand on the seat between us with one of his hands, I couldn't help but turn my hand over and lace our fingers together.
Thanks to the terrible gas mileage that Mom's truck got while hauling the heavy trailer, plus Emily's desperation for drive-through food once she woke up-which she hadn't gotten to have in two months-the fourteen-plus-hour trip took closer to eighteen. Even without using the GPS app on my phone, I could tell we were close to Texas the next afternoon when the f lat landscape turned into open rolling hills, many of them now dotted with black and brown cows. The southern states also showed their recent sufferings from drought with pastures covered in mostly dead brown grass, which made a sharply contrasting background for the green pine trees that began to show up the closer we got to East Texas.
Then the sporadic pines turned into long stretches of woods, and I was reminded again of why East Texas was called the Pine Belt. While up north, I'd gotten used to seeing mostly hardwoods and only a few evergreens here and there. The sight of all those pines both welcomed me with their familiarity and surprised me with the realization of just how much I had missed them.
I was home again.
Except that feeling didn't make any sense to me. I'd always planned to leave East Texas and the Clann's stranglehold over that area as soon as I graduated from high school, and once gone, I had never expected to look back. Yet here I was, feeling a strange pain of what could only be called homesickness. Shouldn't I be horrified to be back and anxious to leave as soon as possible?
Ignoring the current movie on TV, I stared out the window behind the couch at the familiar landscape zooming by and tried to make some sense of my mixed emotions. But it wasn't easy like it should have been. Because, while I was afraid of the Clann and being back within the heart of their territory, there was also this undeniable excitement buzzing in my stomach and tingling in my hands and feet, as if my body had a mind of its own and yearned to jump out of this trailer and run through the woods on either side of the highway.
The roller coaster of emotions only grew worse when we stopped in Mineola at the car rental place to drop off Dad and Tristan.
"Can I just go on record one more time and say how much I hate this plan?" I muttered while standing in the parking lot with Tristan. Dad had gone inside the agency to pick up the car.
"I know. I don't like it either, but-"
"Yeah, I know. We need this." I looked up at him. "I know I don't have to say it but...please promise me you'll be careful."
Tristan smiled. "I will. I'll look after your old man, too, while I'm at it."
I sighed.
Then Tristan kissed me. After two months of suffering through the distance between us, the shock of that kiss slammed every one of my senses almost to the point of overwhelming me. I'd nearly forgotten just how right it felt to kiss him, like coming home and discovering my biggest purpose in life all in one blinding f lash of joy. I wound my arms around his neck, desperate to be closer to him, wishing I never had to let him go. We'd had only a couple of days back together. And now this.
"It'll only be a few hours," he murmured against my lips.
"Didn't Tom Hanks say something like that to his fiancee right before getting on a plane that crashed and left him missing on an island for five years?"
Tristan chuckled. "Yeah, well, he wasn't half vamp and half Clann either, now was he?" He sighed, his strong arms looped around my waist. "I would do a spell to give myself wings and f ly back to you if I had to."
I let my face show my doubt on that one. "I thought we couldn't do magic like that."
He shrugged and grinned. "Where there's a will, there's always some way."
Yeah, that was exactly what I was most worried about... Mr. Williams's will to kill Tristan if he ever got the chance.
"Sav, honey, we've gotta go," Mom called from behind the wheel of the truck.
I rose up on tiptoe to kiss Tristan one last time, our lips pressing together hard enough to bruise. Then I stepped away from him and walked around the front end of the truck, refusing to look back as I got into the passenger-side seat. This wasn't a Kodak moment. I would see him again in just a few hours. Their plan was potentially dangerous, but between Tristan and my dad's combined skills and experience, they would be fine. I would see both of them again before the sun even had time to set.
"Lie to yourself some more, Savannah," I muttered, pressing a shaking hand to my knotted stomach.
Still, try as I might I couldn't help but stare at Tristan's shrinking ref lection in the side mirror as we pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the highway, or stop the lump from forming in my throat.
Anne had warned me that the perimeter of Jacksonville was too heavily guarded with Keepers both night and day for us to risk going there. But meeting in Tyler meant the girls wouldn't have to travel very far, since it was only a halfhour's drive from Jacksonville. So I had arranged with Anne to meet them in the Barnes & Noble parking lot. The lot had the added advantage of being right across from the mall where we all used to shop together, so it wouldn't be hard for any of us to find. Plus it was plenty big enough to admit Mom's truck and trailer.
The only concern was maintaining the invisibility spell on both the truck and trailer during the meet-up to keep us hidden from any Clann who might pass by. Because Emily's advanced pregnancy was sapping most of her strength, it had been up to Tristan and me to create the spell. And it would be all on me to maintain that spell for two hours, which was the minimum amount of time Dad said he would need to travel to his meeting with his supplier.
It was hard not to constantly check my phone for messages or calls from Dad during the half-hour drive between Mineola and Tyler. The silence in the truck's cab didn't offer any distraction, either. I had thought Mom would at least be happy about finally getting to drive her own truck again. Instead, all she could think about was the impending loss of her dog, whom we had resorted to giving the doggy equivalent of a Valium from a vet Mom had visited up in South Dakota before the start of this trip. She was so worried Lucy would remember being left with strangers and blame her for it later that she wanted to keep her sedated for the handoff.
Emily cleared her throat from the backseat, where she had stretched out. "So, um, I'm reading this ebook about what to expect when you're pregnant, and it says I should be seeing an ob-gyn every month and taking folic acid and stuff. guys think maybe we could find me a doctor to see up north once we get back?"
Mom's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "I'm sorry. I thought your mother might have already explained this to you. You can't see a normal doctor. Not for this baby. Any human doctor will do an ultrasound on your baby and say it's stillborn. Damphirs don't have a heartbeat till well after they're born, at least from what I experienced with Savannah."
I forgot to breathe for several seconds. Wow. It was one thing to know I was different, and another to picture myself as a newborn without a heartbeat. "How'd you know I was still alive?"
"Because you moved around and blinked your eyes and stuff."
"Is there anything else I should know about this baby before I pop it out?"
This started a long question-and-answer session between them that continued right up until the moment we pulled into the bookstore parking lot and found my friends already waiting for us there.
I shoved my phone into my jeans pocket, then jumped out of the truck as soon as Mom had finished parking, surprised yet again by my reaction as my eyes welled up with tears. I hadn't realized just how much I missed seeing my friends.
Michelle leaped out of her car with a loud squeal and ran over to give me a big hug, making me laugh. Good thing we'd planned on talking inside the trailer instead of the bookstore, or we definitely would have attracted a lot of attention.
"Wow, I didn't realize anyone would actually miss me," I said with a grin as I returned her hug, concentrating not to squeeze her too hard and crack her ribs.
"Of course we miss you!" She glanced around. "Didn't Tristan come with you?"
"Oh, um, no," I said. "He had something to do with my dad."
The other doors of Michelle's car opened. Grinning, I waved at Carrie and Anne to hurry up and join us.
"Is everything okay between you two?" Michelle frowned, distracting me while Carrie and Anne walked over to join us. Carrie, never much for physical displays of any kind, also surprised me by leaning in for a hug.
"Yes, we're fine," I told Michelle, looking at her and almost missing Anne's swoop in for her own ferocious version of a hug. "Whoa. Anne, are you feeling okay? Since when did you turn into a hugger?"
She leaned back and scowled at me with the darkest look I'd ever seen on her face. "Oh, I don't know, maybe when my best friend ran out of town without even stopping to say goodbye?"
"I know. I'm sorry," I said. Thankfully Anne knew the entire story already. It would have killed me to have to lie to her. She'd also said she would come up with a cover story for me for Carrie and Michelle, since they didn't know anything about the existence of vampires or what the Clann really was.
Not that her story seemed to have stopped Michelle's ever curious mind from running wild with questions, which it was doing right now. Michelle's constant stream of thought was a little distracting, and I was doing my best to block it out.
Anne stepped back and propped her hands on her hips, looking me over. "You're skinnier. Paler, too. Isn't Tristan feeding you anything?"
The twinkle in her eye told me she was only joking. Vampire humor. Lovely.
I sighed and smiled back at her. "Thanks. Always good to hear how great I look. Speaking of..." I blinked a couple of times, wondering if I was seeing things. "Did you get...highlights?" Anne's thick chestnut hair was no longer a single shade of brown but now sported wide chunks of honey-blond. She was also wearing it down instead of in her trademark ponytail.
One corner of her mouth hitched up. "Yeah. Ron talked me into it. I told him it was a dumb idea but..." She wrinkled her tanned nose.
"No, I like it." I studied the new look and nodded. "It makes you look...I dunno, more girly?"
She swatted at my upper arm. "Gee. Thanks."
"Hey, why don't we go hang out inside the trailer so we can sit and talk?" I suggested, remembering the plan. Once we were inside the trailer, the invisibility spell would kick in and keep any Clann who might be searching for Mom's truck from noticing us. We wouldn't be totally invisible, just not worth noticing for some reason. Mom had opted to stay in the truck with her dog, but Emily had already gotten out and gone into the trailer, probably to pee yet again. She seemed to have to go every twenty minutes or so.
We all went inside and I gave them a quick tour. Emily reemerged from the bathroom just as we were settling into the dinette.
"Hi," she said with a tired smile.
My friends' eyes widened as they saw how pregnant Emily was.
"Everyone, this is Emily Coleman. Em, this is Anne, Carrie and Michelle," I said.
"Nice to meet you," Emily murmured. Then she made a face and touched her stomach. "Whoa. Big kick there. Listen, I hate to be rude but I didn't get much sleep last night with all the moving and shaking. So I hope y'all don't mind if I take a nap and leave you guys to get caught up?"
My friends and I all made murmurs of agreement and waved her on to the bunk room. As soon as the door slid shut, Michelle leaned forward.
"I can't believe the rumors are really true about her being pregnant!"
I cleared my throat, knowing Emily could probably still hear us. "Um, yeah. It's kind of a touchy subject, though, so..."
"Oh, right. Of course," Michelle said, her cheeks turning pink. "So tell us about you and Tristan being on the road together. Tons of fun in the sun and hot romantic moonlit walks on the beach?"
A snort slipped out of me. "Uh, not really. We've been... having some issues." Feeling the surge in Michelle's curiosity, I quickly added, "We'll work them out eventually, though." Hopefully. Quickly I tried to change the subject. "I'd really rather hear about you guys. So tell me, Anne said you two have boyfriends now?"
Michelle turned pink again. Carrie waved her hand in the air and said, "Oh, you know, they're just fun to double date with."
But the warmth emanating from both of them said their feelings for their new guys were developing into something a lot more than just "fun."
"I brought pictures!" Michelle said, whipping out a small photo album from her back pocket that looked stuffed full of images.
For the next hour, my friends told me about everything I'd missed the past two months...the strange "gang violence" that had brief ly but so devastatingly destroyed a huge part of Jacksonville and the town's recovery afterward, the two brothers Carrie and Michelle were now dating who were Christian rock band members they'd met on the same night at some church function, all three girls' successful tryouts for the JHS varsity Maidens volleyball team.
The photos of the junior prom and their group date dinner before it at a popular Asian grill in Tyler were the hardest to look at, though.
"You guys looked great," I murmured, tracing a finger over a picture of them laughing around the grill as f lames apparently shot up from their food. They looked really happy.
Tristan and I should have been in the picture with them. Would I never get to go to prom with Tristan?
Michelle launched into a long story detailing their grand shopping expedition for dresses for two weeks before prom, with occasional jokes and laughter added by Carrie and Anne. I tried to laugh with them around the tightness in my throat, but it took some effort and I was pretty sure my lack of a poker face threatened to give away my true feelings.
Finally Anne bumped her shoulder against mine. "You're awful quiet. Spill."
I swallowed and shook my head, holding on to my smile for all it was worth. "Oh, you know. I'm just jealous. I wish Tristan and I could have been there with you guys."
I was missing so much, first during the five months spent away in Arkansas, and now another two months on the run from the Clann. It seemed that, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't have a normal life. I wanted to be one of them, a regular human with normal worries like what dress to wear to prom and whether I'd make the varsity volleyball team. I missed our monthly slumber parties at Anne's house, the way her mother always made us take off our shoes before entering their house and her homemade veggie pizzas, even though the smell of the human food turned my stomach. I missed getting to listen to Michelle's rambling gossip at lunch every day, and Carrie teasing Anne about fumbling some dive for the volleyball at practice or a game. I missed listening to Ron's and Anne's thoughts about each other that they worked so hard to hide from themselves and everyone else because they were crazy in love and trying to keep it under control.
I missed it all. And even though I tried to tell myself that I'd never really been one of them due to my hybrid genes, it didn't make me feel any better. In fact, knowing I might live forever and my human friends wouldn't made every moment I missed experiencing with them even worse. I'd never realized before just how limited my time with them would be. I'd thought at least we would have our junior and senior years together before we graduated and went off to separate colleges. Now I didn't even have that much time with them.
"Oh!" Anne said. "I nearly forgot. To honor this lovely reunion, I got us all a little something." She dug into her jeans pocket, then pulled out a wad of what looked like black cord. After a minute of untangling, she proudly held up four cords with odd little metal charms dangling from each. "They're friendship necklaces, or you can wear them as bracelets if you want."
She passed them out so we each had one, then explained, "I've actually had them for a while but wanted to wait till we could all put them on at the same time."
I held up mine and studied the charm. It looked like a metal puzzle piece.
"I looked everywhere for a four-piece friendship bracelet charm, but they're impossible to find," Anne said. "Then I found this guy in Mexico who cuts apart Mexican change to create four pieces. I asked him if he could do it with a U.S. quarter, which he could. So I found a quarter from our birth year, sent it to him, and tada! See? They all fit together."
We held our charms together, twisting and turning them until sure enough, they fit together again into a U.S. quarter. Then I noticed the four hearts that formed the cuts so each of our charms had one heart-shaped edge and one heartshaped hole along the other cut edge.
"Wow, Anne, this is really awesome!" Michelle said.
I had to admit I was completely impressed. I'd never realized how thoughtful Anne could be. I'd always thought of her more as a spur-of-the-moment, f ly-by-the-seat-of-herpants girl. But this had obviously taken some true planning.
"Thank you," we took turns saying, making her all but glow.
Carrie and Michelle chose to wear theirs as necklaces, while Anne and I wore ours in multiple loops around our right wrists.
I stared at my friendship charm, at the heart-shaped edge and the missing heart from its other edge. A glance at my watch showed my time with my friends was already almost over. I had thought the two hours would pass by slowly, filled with dread and worry about Tristan. But the reassurance of my silent phone in my pocket had allowed me to completely forget the time. Soon I would have to say goodbye to Anne, Michelle and Carrie. They would go back to living their human lives. And while I would be with Tristan, I would once again return to my new life of running from the Clann. And all I would have would be the occasional text or phone call and my new friendship bracelet to keep me connected to them.
My eyes stung, and I discovered I couldn't breathe well.
While my friends continued talking about the friendship charms, I focused on regaining control over my wayward emotions, telling myself that I was being ridiculous, that Tristan and I wouldn't have to be on the run forever, that someday we would return to Jacksonville and the life we'd hoped to have together there. That I would see my friends again, and I wasn't really missing out on that much.
But it all felt like lies. Because I really had no idea when the war between the Clann and the vamps might end, if ever. Soon my friends would be going their separate ways to college, and then it would be even harder for us all to stay in touch. They would start careers somewhere, get married, have families. And our brief time together as a circle of friends would be gone, just nice memories from the past that could never be repeated or recaptured.
Every day that the Clann forced Tristan and me to stay on the run was another day I missed spending with my friends, creating those precious memories.
Mom opened the trailer door and poked her head in. "Sav? I'm sorry, hon, but we need to go."
It was time.
I felt physically ill as I walked my friends to Michelle's car. Mom followed us so she could carefully lay the still drugged Lucy in the backseat. Mom also transferred all of Lucy's tiny dresses and collars and leashes, Lucy's doggy bed, her food and water bowls, and a huge bag of her favorite dog food into the trunk of Michelle's car.
"I think the bumper just dropped a good six inches," Carrie muttered, making me laugh despite my tight throat.
Michelle looked a little wide-eyed and slightly overwhelmed as Mom gave her a written list of instructions on how much to feed Lucy and when and how often to walk her. But she only smiled and promised to take the best care of Mom's dog, and even thanked my mother for trusting her with her baby. Clearly Michelle was a dog owner and understood the whole dog ownership thing, which seemed to slightly reassure Mom.
Once Mom had given Lucy the last of many kisses and returned to the truck sobbing, my friends and I all took turns hugging goodbye. The entire time, Carrie's and Michelle's minds nearly blasted me with a thousand questions they somehow forced themselves not to ask out loud. I wished so badly that I could tell them everything, that I could explain why I had to be gone for who knew how long. But they would never believe me, and even if they did, just knowing about vamps and the truth behind the Clann would endanger them. It was better for them not to know, even if that meant putting a little emotional distance between us.
Then I hugged Anne, and the reminder that she did know everything and still chose to be such a loyal friend was nearly my undoing.
"Stay in touch so I don't worry too much, okay?" she muttered near my ear.
I nodded, the huge knot in my throat too tight for me to speak. A rebellious tear slid down my cheek as I stepped back from the car and watched them all pile inside. And then, with the music cranked up and their windows rolled down, they all waved madly and drove away.
Taking a few shaky breaths, I forced myself to focus on Tristan and Dad. Better to worry about the guys than to have a pity party and bawl over what I couldn't control.
Which reminded me...
I checked my phone again and frowned. Still no updates. What was going on at the blood supply pickup?
I hopped into the front passenger side of the truck.
"Any word from our guys?" Mom asked as she started the engine.
Silently I shook my head as a growing sense of unease crept over me.
Something must be wrong. They should have completed the pickup by now.
Maybe the supplier was running late?
"I'm sure they're fine," Mom muttered. But I didn't need to read her mind to know she was getting worried, too. It was all there in her tone and the pinched lines between her eyes.
"Let's go back to the rental place and wait for them," I said, working hard to keep my voice even. Maybe if I tried to stay calm, Mom would, too.
"Right. Good idea." Mom forced a smile for my sake as she steered the truck and trailer into traffic. "Don't worry, hon. Your dad didn't survive this long by being stupid. He's got amazing instincts. In fact I used to tease him about being part Clann because he always seemed to smell a trap a mile away."
I forced a smile of my own. "Right. Plus he's got Tristan with him. So between the two of them..."
I looked out the window and, for the first time ever, silently begged my notorious speed demon of a mother to drive faster.
We drove east on Interstate 20 for an hour, passing by Kilgore and several billboards advertising the world-famous Kilgore College Rangerettes dance/drill team, which made me smile. If Savannah were with us, she probably would have begged us to stop by the Rangerettes Museum on the way back. Along with nearly every other Charmer, she was a huge Rangerettes fan. Savannah had even convinced me to agree to take her to the Rangerettes' annual Revels show last spring. But before we could go, the vamp council had dragged us to Paris for her "test" and then everything blew up with the Clann's abduction of her Nanna, followed by our breakup for months.
Maybe we could stop by the museum on our way back. That ought to earn at least a smile from her.
Once we passed Kilgore, Mr. Colbert took an exit off the highway, made a quick, sharp turn back on a side road, then a hundred yards later the asphalt abruptly ended and turned into a single-lane dirt road. We stayed on the dirt road for another ten minutes as it wound through acres of thick pines occasionally broken by open pastures where cattle grazed.
Finally we crossed a single-lane cement bridge over the local creek and entered a huge square field that appeared to have been recently clear-cut, judging by the number of dead pines now lying on the ground.
"Interesting choice of location," I muttered as Mr. Colbert parked in the road at the edge of the clearing.
He hummed an agreement, dark eyebrows pinched and shadowing his eyes, which stayed on the move as he visually scanned the area. Finally he nodded, and we opened our doors to get out.
Mr. Colbert froze, sniffed the air. "Something's wrong."
Then I felt explosion of pinpricks all over my neck and arms.
Acting on pure instinct, I dived over the hood of the car, grabbing Mr. Colbert on my way down in a tackle. Immediately we rolled, and not a second too soon, as a reddishorange orb f lew toward us from the south and our car exploded into a huge fireball.
We jumped to our feet and took off running in the direction we'd originally come in from.
"This way!" Mr. Colbert shouted, grabbing my shoulder and pulling me more west when I tried to go north.
Then I smelled it and understood. The northern breeze carried a strange, musky scent that was half human and half something exotic.
The Clann had called in help for this ambush.
I reached out with my mind and found a small group of Clann coming our way from the southwest, downwind where we couldn't smell their approach. They were trying to box us in. We'd have to circle around them.
"More Clann ahead, eleven o'clock," I called out over the roar of the air rushing between us as we ran through pines and pastures, weaving around cattle and over barbed-wire fences.
Mr. Colbert nodded. We turned more north.
But not soon enough.
Fifty yards to our left, a group of Clann spotted us from the road where they were waiting in the back of a camouf lagepainted pickup truck. At the same time, more pinpricks of pain stabbed at my skin in warning just before a blue orb hurtled toward us at chest height. It was going to hit Mr. Colbert.
I reached back, grabbed his nearest arm with both my hands, and threw him ahead of me while I ducked to avoid taking the hit myself. But I missed seeing the second orb trailing a split second behind the first.
I stood up too soon, and it slammed right into me.
Air whooshed out of my lungs from the impact. It felt like a car had just nailed me. The orb hit me hard enough to knock me off my feet. Air whistled in my ears as the world rotated clockwise ninety degrees then soared past me.
"Tristan!" Mr. Colbert yelled.
The world went black and silent.