By the time we pulled into the car rental agency's parking lot, they had closed for business. Dad and Tristan had planned ahead for this and arranged to leave the car in the parking lot and the keys in the agency's overnight drop box.
But when we pulled into the parking lot, the guys' car wasn't there.
Mom and I shared an uneasy glance.
Emily sighed. "They probably stopped to do some human grocery shopping for us or something. I'm sure they'll be back any minute now. Until then, my back is killing me, so I'm going to go lie down in the trailer." She got out of the truck then hesitated. "Anyone need anything while I'm up?"
Mom and I both shook our heads, and I gave her a faint smile of thanks for the gesture. She smiled back tiredly then headed for the trailer.
And then we waited.
And waited.
And waited.
When they finally showed up, it wasn't at all as we'd expected.
For one thing, Dad was on foot.
And Tristan was draped over his right shoulder, firemanlift style.
I leaped out of the truck and ran over to him, asking him what happened, opening the trailer door for him so he could take Tristan inside.
He dropped Tristan on the couch. Tristan was so tall his long legs hung off the side.
"What happened?" Mom asked.
"We were ambushed," Dad muttered. "Tristan was able to fire off enough spells to take out the Clann nearby and clear the way for us. But he missed seeing one last stray orb that one of them launched, and it hit him hard enough to send him f lying into a tree. I grabbed him and ran out of there before the Keepers in the area could catch up."
I ran a shaking hand over Tristan's forehead. Then I realized...
"He's not breathing. He's not breathing!" I tapped Tristan's cheek, calling his name repeatedly in a rising shriek I couldn't seem to stop. His head lolled with the most awful crunchy sound popping from his neck, which made my stomach f lip over and bile rise to the back of my throat. "Dad, what's wrong with his neck?"
"I believe he may have broken it when he hit the tree trunk."
A broken neck. Just like Dylan, we'd thought. Karma? Or... "Was Dylan there?"
"He may have been. We were in too great a hurry to escape to notice our attackers' specific features. Mr. Williams himself could have been there for all we were able to ascertain."
Emily came running out of the bedroom. She saw Tristan and dropped to her knees beside him, grabbing his limp hand and tugging it as she called out her brother's name.
Dad grabbed my shoulders, pulled me up to my feet and gave me a little shake. "Savannah, listen to me! He is not dead. At least, not permanently."
I wrenched myself free of Dad's grip and crouched beside Tristan again, using my every sense to try to pick up any sign of life from him.
But there was nothing. No heartbeat, no thoughts within his mind. Nothing but a cold and utterly lifeless shell of a body.
My father was obviously lying to me.
I stroked the hard planes of Tristan's face, felt the rasp of whiskers against my palm, traced a fingertip over that full lower lip that had only hours ago kissed me goodbye.
"Dad..." I whispered, unable to look away from Tristan in case his eyelids moved.
"I promise you, he will come back. You must give him time for his body to heal first."
We were vampires. I'd turned him. Other than fire, decapitation or a stake to the heart, he should be indestructible. Nobody had told me our bodies actually took time to heal. "But...when we get cut, it heals immediately."
"Superficial wounds do. What his body is now doing is actually knitting the broken bones together and cleaning the blood of any marrow released into it from the breaks."
I took a deep breath then held it as I realized Emily's and Mom's fears were releasing pheromones into the air.
"How long has he..." Mom couldn't finish the question.
"Less than an hour."
"And how long will it take until..." Mom began.
A thump sounded, so faint even my vampire hearing could barely pick it up. Then a double thump followed.
Afraid to speak, I laid my cheek against his chest.
Another double thump came from within him.
"He is returning to us," Dad said.
I sat up and froze, staring at Tristan's face, watching and waiting, scared to even breathe.
The double thump continued, evening out into a solid heartbeat. Then his chest slowly rose and fell as Tristan took his first breath again.
Emily squeaked. "His fingers...they moved!"
And then his eyes f luttered and opened. He saw me and smiled. "Hey. Told you I'd come back."
"Don't ever do that to me again," I whispered, cupping his face so I could lean over and kiss his forehead, his cheeks, then the tip of his nose in gratitude.
"Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty," Emily joked through her tears. "And thanks for scaring the ever-living crap out of us!"
Sighing, Tristan eased upright, wincing as he tilted his head first to one side then the other with another, more slight crunching noise.
I cringed as my stomach rolled over again. "Could you maybe not do that so much? Dad said you broke your neck, and I really don't want to barf all over you now that you're breathing again and all."
"Mmm, feels like I broke it," Tristan muttered. He rubbed the back of his neck with a scowl. Then the words truly registered with him. He looked up at Dad with wide eyes. "Wait. I did what?"
"You took a direct hit that threw you into a tree," Dad said. "Then I picked you up and carried you back."
"Huh." He blinked a few times. "So you're saying I died again?"
Dad nodded.
My stomach lurched, and my body felt incredibly tired. I sat back on the f loor, holding Tristan's hand. Now I knew what he must have felt like during our stay in Arkansas. Holding his hand, with its steady pulse in the wrist, was like holding on to my last shred of sanity.
"Wait a minute," Mom said. "What about the blood?"
Dad scowled at her in silent answer.
Mom rolled her eyes. "Great. No blood. Then what are you guys supposed to live on?"
"I will have to think of an alternate plan."
"Like what?" Mom pushed, earning an even darker scowl from her ex.
"I do not know yet. I will figure something out after we are safely far away from East Texas. For now, we must focus on that. This rig is far too slow to outrun the Keepers if they find us still sitting here."
"Fine," Mom said. "The keys are in the ignition. I've had all the excitement I can stand for one day. I'm going to take a nice long nap." She walked on stiff legs back to her room, eased the door shut, and then the bed springs creaked as she apparently f lopped into bed still fully clothed.
"I will have to stop and purchase more disposable phones soon," Dad said. "When we stop, everyone please stay in the trailer so you will not be seen."
We all nodded, and he left the trailer. A second later the truck's engine started and the trailer rocked and swayed as we headed down the road.
I didn't care where we went, where he stopped for phones or how long it took to get there. We'd figure out a solution to the blood supply issue later, too. For now, as long as Tristan had a pulse and was breathing, that was all that mattered to me.
Emily rubbed her forehead, carefully got to her feet and walked over to ease herself down backward onto the dinette bench. "Oh, man, this day sucks."
"So now that you heard about my day, how did yours go?" Tristan asked with a wry grin as he tugged me up off the f loor and onto the couch beside him.
Ugh. I didn't even want to remember that whole scene with the Clann cop. Unfortunately, my memory was too rebellious to be stopped and it all played out lightning-fast within my mind.
"Son of a..." Tristan hissed, his hand tightening on mine. "Are you all okay?"
I nodded.
"Yep, thanks to your girlfriend," Emily said. "She hit him with several spells one right after the other to freeze him, then make him forget he ever saw us, and then she put him to sleep."
And in the process I also vamped out and nearly bit my mother and your sister, I confessed silently, because saying the words out loud would have compounded the humiliation to a level I wouldn't be able to live with.
Tristan stared at me. Finally he blinked again. But you didn't lose control obviously.
I shook my head, pressing my lips together to hold back a f lood of tears. But the point is I almost did lose control. I could have killed them, all of them!
But you didn't. He stroked my cheek, staring into my eyes. Everyone got away safely because of you.
I looked away, unable to maintain eye contact with him any longer.
I stood up then held out a hand to Savannah. She hesitated then took it, letting me tug her to her feet and over to the dinette to join my sister. After we sat down beside each other, I kept a hold on her hand, unwilling to let go of that small contact between us. It had been too long since we'd even held hands, and I was blown away by how much my skin seemed to crave hers.
Maybe we couldn't get past the whole Mr. Williams issue yet. But at least we still had this.
We sat in silence, each of us sort of savoring the relief and trying not to remember the terror of the past couple of hours.
When her father stopped for burner phones at a Walmart, I looked at Savannah.
"Hey, you okay over there?" I said with a half smile, trying to coax a return smile out of her. Maybe she was just tired.
She sighed. "I'm grateful you're alive. But I'm so tired of this. All of it. The fighting, the running and hiding, the constant fear and feeling so out of control. And then when I think it can't get any worse for us, you die on me. And this is just what we're going through. What about everyone else? There are people out there getting caught in the cross fire who are dying, and they're not lucky enough to be able to come back. They're losing loved ones. And many of them are innocent humans who don't even understand what's going on or why their lives are being destroyed."
Savannah shook her head and stared out the dinette window. But I knew from her thoughts that she wasn't seeing the sun setting behind the traffic whizzing by on the interstate.
Strangely, the emotion coming off her in wave after wave wasn't anger like I expected, or even fear. It was...guilt. Which made zero sense.
I had to say something. "Sav, I know we've got it a little easier being on the run than some people who've been hit the hardest by the war. But you do know this war isn't our fault. Right? Mr. Williams started it, not us."
Those big eyes, now a slate-gray, f lashed at me. "If it's not completely our fault, then we sure as heck at least helped him start it. Think about it. He never would have been in a position to kill your mother, take over the Clann and declare the war if not for Gowin's killing your dad and then forcing me to turn you."
Emily's mouth dropped open as red bloomed in her cheeks.
Savannah held up a hand and turned toward my sister. "I know you didn't know Gowin would do all of that, and I'm not blaming you. Honest. I'm blaming myself."
Emily frowned. "How are you at fault for my stupid choice to sneak around with Gowin?"
"Are you always in the habit of breaking the rules and dating vampires behind your parents' backs?" Savannah asked.
"No, not really."
"And what made you decide to give in to the temptation to date him in the first place?"
Emily scrunched her nose. "It might have been inspired just a tiny bit by my little brother's whole Romeo and Juliet thing with you. It just seemed so romantic and tragic and forbidden."
Savannah nodded. "That's exactly my point. Tristan and I didn't realize what we were doing when we started dating. But I see now that it was like knocking over a domino. We started sneaking around, then you started dating Gowin, and one thing led to another and then another. Our choices gave others the opportunities they needed, and now we're in the middle of a second war that's killing thousands everywhere... vamps, Clann and humans."
I f lopped back against the upholstered bench with a soft thud. I hated to admit it, but I kind of saw Savannah's point. The three of us hadn't intended to help Mr. Williams and Gowin play their parts in the start of this war, but ultimately that's what we'd done.
I looked at Savannah. "I still can't regret falling for you."
Her smile was a little wobbly, but it was still a smile. "I know, I can't, either. But I do regret what it's caused. And I hate the fact that we're running and hiding from it all instead of doing something about it. I think..." She took a deep breath. "I think we should figure out a way to take him down. Not kill him, but get him removed from the Clann leadership position and then turn him over to the Clann so they can decide together how to punish him."
"If they ever come to their senses, you mean," Emily muttered. "Right now he's got them so afraid of the big bad vamps that they'll take any kind of leadership at all as long as it promises to keep them safe."
"But he's not keeping them safe!" Savannah said, her voice rising a bit. She stopped, regained control over her emotions and added, "Why can't someone wake the descendants up and make them see how Mr. Williams is actually endangering them all by insisting on this stupid war? There's got to be some other way to stop him. Couldn't we find some way to make the Clann see that he's a horrible leader so they'll replace him?"
Savannah and I looked at Emily.
She returned our looks with raised eyebrows. "What?"
"Uh, sis, if any of us here know how to play the political game, it'd be you. You and I both know you're using that whole blonde cheerleader stereotype like a mask to hide that diabolical mastermind genius of yours. Remember all those pranks you came up with when we were little kids, not to mention how you always found a way to talk me into helping you pull them off?"
Emily's mouth hitched into a wry grin. "Yeah, good times, good times."
"Let's face it, if Dad could have gotten over his oldfashioned ideas, I think we both know which one of us should have really been next in line to lead the Clann."
Emily's throat worked as she looked down at her hands, clasped loosely on the table. After a moment, she sighed. "We can't change the past. But maybe we could find a way to change the currently crappy future. If killing Mr. W is off the table..."
"It is," Savannah growled.
Emily looked at me. I shrugged one shoulder.
She sighed. "Then I guess all that leaves us with is to ruin him politically somehow, like you said."
"Why can't you two just tell the Clann who really killed your mom?" Savannah said.
Emily scowled. "For one thing, memories can be planted or made up, and they know I'm biased toward protecting my brother whatever it takes. For another, I was upstairs when Mom died, so I can't actually show them a firsthand memory of her death and who exactly killed her."
Savannah and Emily tossed around a few more options, but I'd stopped listening for a minute, distracted by the way my sister kept making this weird twisty expression with her mouth every time she said Mr. Williams's name.
"Sis, what are you really thinking?" At her raised eyebrows, I added, "You keep making this weird face like something's bugging you."
"It's just something about the night Mom died that keeps nagging at me. But I can't figure out what it means or even if it means anything at all."
"Walk us through it," Savannah said.
"It was when I was upstairs fighting Mr. Williams and a couple of his apes outside my bedroom. Remember, Tristan? And you came roaring up the stairs?"
I nodded, and she continued. "Before you showed up, I kept trying to read his thoughts to see what his strategy was and if there was a way for Mom and me to escape. Of course, I guess she was already gone downstairs...." She cleared her throat. "But his thoughts were shielded even better than my own. I couldn't get a single thought out of him, until you came up the stairs and suddenly he had to fight us both. And then his shield slipped, just a little, and for a second I picked up this image of a kid in his mind. There was something about the kid that he was afraid of. But before I could get more than a picture of the kid's face and a sense of Mr. Williams's fear, he clammed up again."
She shrugged. "Like I said, not sure if it means anything or nothing at all."
Savannah leaned forward, her eyebrows pinched. "If Mr. Williams is afraid of it, then it's got to be a weak spot for him. Maybe this kid knows something that could help us."
"Did you get the kid's name?" I asked.
Emily shook her head. "I didn't have to. I recognized him. His name's Mac Griffin. I remember Mom talking about him and showing me his family photo back when we were prepping for your big leadership run against Mr. Williams."
Savannah gasped. "Did you say his first name's Mac?" At Emily's nod, Savannah said, "Your mom...when she was dying and I was trying to figure out what was wrong with her, she said or thought something about Mac and how it was the key to the lies, or something like that. I thought she was referring to a computer or maybe just talking nonsense because she was in so much pain and kind of out of it. But..."
I rubbed a hand over my mouth. "Was this Mac kid at the voting?" I'd talked to so many people that afternoon at Dad's wake and funeral.
"No, he was too young. He's only fourteen, I think. But I remember Mom talking about him because of what happened to his parents. They were victims of one of Gowin's hits on the Clann. Mac was the only survivor. Dad had Dr. Faulkner looking into all those descendants' deaths. And then after Dad died, Dr. Faulkner kept looking into them. He kept telling Mom there was something off about Mac's memories of the night his parents died. The week of her death, she even went to see Mac in person. When she came back, I noticed she was mentally shielding even harder than usual, and she wouldn't tell me anything about her trip other than that Mr. Williams had some explaining to do."
"How in the world did this kid survive a vamp attack?" Savannah asked.
"Mom said apparently he wasn't home when the vamps hit. By the time he returned, they were long gone and his parents were already dead."
"I think we should talk to him," I blurted out, surprising us all, including myself. At the girls' questioning looks, I added, "Like Sav said. Anything, or anyone that makes Mr. Williams afraid has to be worth looking into. And besides, if Mom's last words were about this kid, then he's got to be pretty important. Maybe she was trying to tell us to look into it."
Emily frowned. "Just one problem. I have no clue which Clann couple he was placed with."
"Who would know?" I asked.
"Dr. Faulkner does. But I don't know if we can trust him."
"Who else?" I said.
"Well, Mom had their names and addresses in her BlackBerry. You know how anal she was about using that thing for everything she did. She always kept a record on it of every trip she made and important conversations she wanted to remember for later."
I looked at Savannah, reading the same cautious hope on her face that I could feel trying to take root in me. "If we could get that BlackBerry, we might be able to track this kid down and see just what it is about him that's making Mr. Williams so antsy."
"Oh, no, little brother." Emily leaned back on the seat. "I know you're not that crazy. That BlackBerry's in our house. You know, the one right by the Circle that was just hit by the vamp council a few weeks ago? That whole area is going to be crawling with Clann guards now. You'd have to be absolutely stupid to even think about getting anywhere near that place!"
I looked to Savannah again. How about it? Feel like getting a little stupid with me?