ONE MONTH LATER
Emily stood by the throne, Samuel Tristan Coleman happily gurgling in one arm as she used her free hand to drop her vote into the stone chalice Dr. Faulkner was holding. He smiled at her and then at the gathering of Clann who had filled the Circle. Thanks to a few well-placed spells, what would have been a stif ling meeting impossible for most humans to withstand in the heat of East Texas in August was made bearable by the artificial breeze that blew continually over us.
Tristan and I stood at the edge of the clearing along with the Keepers and Anne. Our presence would have been unusual even for a normal Clann gathering. But for this event, Emily would not hear of our being left out. And as Tristan liked to say, she got her way as usual.
I just wished Carrie and Michelle could have been here. But after the dust had settled a month ago from all the fighting in the Circle, they had both decided they'd rather not know a thing about vamps or what the Clann really did. Carrie's decision I sort of understood. She liked her world to be orderly and tidy and easy for her to categorize. Vampires and witches at war in her own hometown was anything but neat and tidy. But Michelle's decision completely surprised me. I'd always thought she lived for the latest gossip, and this was the biggest secret she'd ever heard.
"It's too big to keep is the problem!" she'd said, her big eyes full of fear. "I just know I'll blurt it out at school someday, and then my butt'll be toast for sure."
So Tristan and I had reluctantly abided by their decisions, and with Emily's guidance, we'd carefully erased their memories of the entire night in the Circle using a combination of the gaze daze and a little Clann spelling for added measure. Which left only Anne and Ron to hang out with this evening, since Mac was still too young to vote. At least he was happy with the new Clann couple Emily had found for him to live with.
Tapping on the stone chalice made me jump a little. You nodding off over there? Tristan teased.
I threw him a wry smile. No. Just mentally drifting off a bit. Well, wake up, because this is the good part!
While holding the voting chalice, Dr. Faulkner muttered
something, and a wave of goose bumps and pinpricks broke out over my bare arms and neck. Then he raised the chalice in the air.
"It is official. Emily Coleman, you are our new-and, I have the pleasure of adding, our first officially elected female-Clann leader!"
Tristan and I joined the crowd's cheers and clapping as Emily slowly nodded her head in acceptance. Then she turned to smile at the most unusual knot of guests gathered directly before the throne...Caravass and his circle of bodyguards, whom she had personally invited and insisted on having present today. Caravass had reportedly been thrilled with the suggestion and only too happy to show his support, which was further evidenced by his joyous smile and clapping now.
From his thoughts, I gathered that a good part of his happiness came from relief that the war was truly over and he and the surviving council members could finally breathe easier again.
I tried not to laugh at how his every move made nearby descendants jump a little before they reminded themselves of all the descendants surrounding him. Apparently the new peace treaty wasn't quite enough reassurance against renewed violence yet. That would come only with time and healing and many years of peace.
Emily stepped around the side of the stone throne then took her new seat, and all the descendants present bowed down to one knee before her. Anne bowed, too, though I had to grab her hand and tug her down with us. As for Caravass and his bodyguards, they were momentarily stymied as to what was the right strategy. If they bowed down on one knee, would it look as if the leader of the vampires was making himself subordinate to the leader of the Clann?
They settled for deeply bowing their heads in respect. After everyone rose again, Emily said, "Thank you. I will endeavor to follow in my father's footsteps and lead this Clann to the best of my abilities. And now, as my first act as Clann leader..."
She works fast, Tristan thought with a tiny eye roll. I struggled not to laugh out loud.
"I hereby request that a vote be taken to reinstate Tristan Coleman, Savannah Colbert and her mother, Joan Evans, if she wishes, back into the Clann as full descendants with all rights and privileges."
I turned and stared at Tristan. Did you know she was going to-
No, I had no clue.
Do we get a vote in this?
Tristan's mouth twitched. Since we're not actually members of the Clann, I don't think we get a say.
"All in favor, please raise your hand." Emily scowled at the descendants before her as if daring anyone to be so stupid as to thwart their new ruler on her very first day as leader by not raising their hand.
It took a few seconds, but eventually every adult descendant present raised a hand.
Emily smiled again. "Great! And now that our first order of business is out of the way, we can move on to the second."
"Are we going to be here all night?" Anne muttered.
Ron shushed her.
"I hereby nominate, in full conjunction with Caravass, council leader of the vampires..."
Caravass turned to smile at us.
Emily continued. "...that Tristan Coleman and Savannah Colbert from this day forward faithfully serve both the Clann and the council equally as peace ambassadors. As such, they will use their unique abilities to ensure good and honest communication between our peoples at all times so that we may attempt to avoid any repeats of the mistakes of our past."
Murmurs rose up within the ranks. Tristan and I froze and gripped each other's hands so hard it was a wonder our fingers didn't break off.
Emily held out her hands palms-down in a calming gesture. "I understand that it is going to take time for all of us to move past the horrors of our history. Many wrongs have been committed on both sides. But if we do not take active steps toward helping ourselves heal, how are we to move forward together? Tristan and Savannah, you both represent the best of both our worlds, vampire and Clann united. With your abilities to read both Clann and vampire minds, as well as your vampire speed and strength and Clann abilities to spell-cast, I can't think of any two people more perfectly suited to keeping the peace between our worlds. Will you accept this honorary role?"
She stared at us, letting her mental shield slip enough so we could clearly hear her think, Don't you two dare make me look like an idiot up here on my first day on the job! Just say yes and thank you. If you find out later you hate the job, we'll work something out. Okay?
Caravass's smile slipped a little where it met his eyes. He slowly mouthed one word, "Please."
I looked up at Tristan. This wasn't exactly what we had planned. You're helping Emily rebuild and retool BioMed to make synthetic blood... .
And you're going to be performing with the vamp dance troupe on holidays and after you graduate, Tristan thought.
Then again, it would be a good way to ensure the peace lasts a little longer this time.
One corner of Tristan's mouth tightened. True. And if you're going to be in Paris so often anyway, wouldn't be too hard to stop by a council meeting or two just to check in and make sure everything's going smoothly.
I nodded. You'll have to rein in your sister, though. You know she'll keep coming up with more duties for us if we let her.
Right. And the last thing I want is for us to become her minions.
I barely managed to swallow down a snort of laughter at that one. So we're agreed?
Yep, I think so.
We turned to face the two leaders and all the hopeful descendants and the human staring at us.
"We accept," we said at the same time.
She smiled, mouthed "Thank you" then stood up. "Well, then! Now that all the business has been taken care of, who's ready for a party?"
"Oh, thank the lord," Anne muttered. "I want out of these shoes ASAP."
"Aw, but they make your ankles look sexy," Ron said.
Anne's cheeks turned pink. She opened her mouth to fire off some smart-aleck retort, then hesitated and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek instead.
Ron grinned. "Just for that, I'll take you home to change right now if you want."
"Home? Who said anything about going home? I left some sneakers in the truck. I'll be right back." Anne took off through the woods.
"Wait up, I'll go with you." Ron loped off after her, his thoughts focused on trying to get another kiss out of her once they reached her truck, parked in front of the Coleman mansion.
"Not just the Coleman mansion anymore," Tristan murmured, slipping an arm around my waist.
I ducked my head and smiled. "Right."
Since Dad was still a little busy in Arkansas with Mom's training, Tristan and I had opted to move into his family home with Emily and baby Samuel. I'd worried that memories of the deaths of his parents and my Nanna would make this place a bad option for us to stay in. But thanks to the years of our dream connecting together, we also had made many good memories there. Emily preferred to stay closer to the Circle now that she was in charge of keeping it safe, which would be harder to do if we all lived in Nanna's old house instead. And by rooming with Emily for a while, at least until graduation, we could help her out with raising little Samuel.
A familiar head of shaggy blond hair moved through the crowd toward the edge of the clearing nearby.
"Dylan!" Tristan called out.
The blond head paused then changed direction as Dylan came over to join us.
"Where you off to in such a rush?" Tristan said. "You're usually the last to leave a party."
Dylan grinned, a hint of pink coloring his cheeks. "Well, I...uh, to tell the truth, I've got a date with Bethany and I don't want to keep her waiting."
"So you really do like her then?" I asked, silently adding for Tristan's benefit, I told you so.
Dylan shrugged and ducked his head. "She just really gets me, you know? Anyways, I've got to run. She only seems like a perfect sweetheart till I show up late."
I laughed as he waved over his shoulder at us then took off at a jog.
As the crowd mingled and nibbled at the refreshments Emily had brought in personally from a catering company, Emily eventually made her way over to us, her baby boy seemingly a permanent attachment to the crook of one arm.
"Thanks for the heads-up on the membership reinstatement and peace ambassadorships," Tristan muttered, leaning sideways to nudge his sister's free side with an elbow.
She laughed. "I knew you'd never say yes otherwise." At his raised eyebrows, she explained. "Dad always said it's the Clann leader's job to know my people's preferences as much as possible. He also said my job is to try to help you grow. You two need this ambassadorship to make you stay a part of things. Otherwise it'd be way too easy for you to sneak off and never be seen or heard from again."
Mmm, the idea of sneaking off is rather tempting, I thought. Dylan might have had the right idea today, you know.
Tristan ducked his head to try to hide his grin.
"The thing is, we do have plans of our own that are going to take up some time, as well," I said as gently as I could. If Emily the pregnant mom-to-be could be a total pain, I had no desire to see what a fit Emily the Clann Leader could pull off.
"I know, I know," Emily said. "Which is why I promise I won't make you do any traveling for your job for at least the first two years."
"No traveling at all?" Tristan asked, both eyebrows raised sky-high.
"Well, maybe a teensy bit. But only during the summer or spring break, or you know, when it fits in with your school and dance schedules..."
Told you so, I thought to Tristan without looking at him. If I dared look at him right now, I might burst out laughing. Emily paused. "Are you two even listening to me?"
Tristan grinned. "Of course! In fact, we're already doing our jobs and keeping the peace. See? Here's how it works. We love you, sis. Now go away. Your power trip is starting to wear us out. We've got plenty of time to go over all your awesome plans for the Clann, and a newer, stronger peace treaty with the vamps, and whatever else that busy mind of yours comes up with later. For now, why don't you go and enjoy your coming-out party?"
"Are you trying to shoo me away?" Emily gasped. "You can't speak to the Clann leader that way!"
"No, but I sure as heck can talk to my annoying sister like that." His grin stretched wider. "By the way, the whole mother thing looks good on you."
She tilted her head to look down at the baby in her arms. A soft smile slowly spread across her face. "I can't believe it's not way harder. But he's so easy to love! And to think I was scared to death I couldn't do this." Sighing happily, she wandered off to mingle with her guests and was quickly enveloped in descendants who wanted to wish her well or put in their first requests for help from their new leader.
"See? Dealing with her will be no sweat. As for your mother, however..." Tristan gave a pointed look over my head in warning.
I turned around to see Mom and Dad walking toward us, holding hands. Mom looked different. Her once weathered and tanned skin looked smooth, and her usually frizzy blond hair gleamed like a gilded picture frame around eyes that, once a mix of green and brown like the East Texas forests, now shone silver like Dad's eyes. Like mine and Tristan's.
My mouth dropped open. "Dad, Mom! What are you two doing back already? We figured it would be months-"
"I know. And it is a bit of a risk. But your mother seems to be doing so well that I thought we would stop by for just a tiny test to see how she handles it."
I leaned in and muttered, "A tiny test? Are you crazy? This clearing is filled with descendants!"
I know, but I could almost swear she's already got her memory back! He looked at me and clearly thought.
Squinting, I studied Mom as she rattled on about the beauty of the Arkansas mountains to Tristan. There was something a bit...off about her, and not just because she was a vamp now. "Hmm, I see your point." In a normal volume, I said, "So are you two enjoying your vacation getaway?"
"Oh, it's been wonderful!" Mom gushed to me, and there was nothing odd about the light in her eyes now. "Your father has been spoiling me rotten. We feed anytime I get the least bit hungry, and whenever I get bored hanging out at the cabin practicing tai chi, he takes me to some of the local shops to look around."
I glanced at Dad, my eyebrows shooting up. He was already taking her around humans, too?
He shrugged his shoulders. "She handles it all very well for a f ledgling. And besides, I had to come to this momentous occasion today to tell Emily congratulations on securing the Clann leadership position. Joan, will you be okay here with our daughter while I speak with the Clann's new leader?"
Mom laughed and waved a hand. "Of course, darling!"
She watched him walk away then sighed. "Poor man. He doesn't know what to think, does he?"
I turned to look at my mother in shock. "You already have your memory back, don't you?"
She nodded with a huge, naughty grin. "Turns out I'm a thousand times better as a vamp than a descendant! My memory returned a couple of weeks ago. Personally I figure it's because I wasn't very Clann to start with, so it wasn't like the vamp blood had a whole lot to turn in the first place."
I gasped. "Mother! Why don't you tell him?"
"Because he's finally letting me pay for my own things now! But since I can read his mind and finally make some sense out of the things he does, I know he's only doing it to try to keep me happy. The second he learns I have my memory back, we'll be right back to arguing over who picks up the tab for everything. And I am so enjoying having both my husband and my own financial freedom at the same time."
Ugh. I looked at Tristan for help. His eyes widened as he gave a tiny shake of his head. Nuh-uh, he thought. I'm staying way out of this one.
Thanks a lot, I told him silently.
Smart choice, Mom thought with a dark grin.
Tristan and I both froze. Oh, crap. She could read our minds now.
Her grin stretched as wide as the Cheshire Cat's.
I sighed. "Mom, you have to tell him you have your memory back."
She blew out a noisy breath through pursed lips. "I know. And I will. I promise. Just one more month? It's been so nice just to be with him without the constant arguments. And keeping your lips zipped about it for one more itty bitty month would be the least you could do to make up for turning me without asking me first." She sharply enunciated the last six words, making me f linch.
"But you're lying to him," I said through gritted teeth. "And you can't sustain a relationship built on lies."
Dad was headed back our way.
Mom stared at me through squinted eyes. "And just when the heck did you get so grown up on me again?"
It was hard not to smile at that one, but I gave it my best try. "Promise me you'll tell him within one month, or else I'll tell him myself."
"Fine. I promise. Besides, I'm running out of funds on all my credit cards anyway." When Dad returned, Mom looped her arm through his and rested her cheek against his shoulder. "This party's getting a little boring, hon. How about we go find somewhere to shop? It'll be my treat. I think I have a little more left on that purple card of mine."
Dad opened his mouth to argue then sighed and smiled at her. "Anything you wish, dear. It is your money, after all." He threw me a helpless look. "I suppose we will see you two soon for a visit?"
I looked Mom in the eye. "Oh, yeah. We'll be checking in on you two real soon. No more than a month from now, tops."
Remember, you promised, I thought to her.
I know, I know, she answered just as silently. Party pooper.
"That sounds good," Dad said. Then he and Mom walked away through the woods, slowly picking their way over mounds of fallen pine needles.
When I thought they were far enough away that they couldn't hear us, I groaned and turned toward Tristan. "Those two are unbelievable."
"Mmm, well, at least they seem happy. And if dealing with your parents is the toughest thing we face, I think we're going to be just fine."
"We? What's this we? Five seconds ago you were all 'they're your parents, not mine!'" I laughed, rising up on tiptoe and wrapping my arms around his neck as he slipped his around my waist.
Tristan grinned. "Just promise me we won't be like them, and I can happily live out eternity with you."
Feeling silly, I held up a pinky like we used to do when we were little kids. "Pinky swear?"
Chuckling, he hooked his pinky with mine. "Always."
And then we sealed the deal with a kiss.