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    Chapter 1

    "His father and Mr. Winkler won't allow it, that's why," Denise DeLuca dumped blueberry muffins out of a muffin pan with practiced deliberation. She was taking food to Adele, no matter what. Sali had an untouched can of soda sitting in front of him as he watched his mother work.

    "But we need to do something for Ashe. Maybe a private service?" Marco, sitting opposite Sali at the kitchen island, suggested, his dark eyes searching his mother's face for an acceptable answer.

    "Mr. Winkler said no, and the Grand Master is backing him up," Denise muttered, arranging muffins in a basket for Adele. Her mouth tugged into a frown as she worked, turning away from her oldest son's gaze and focusing on the task she'd set for herself.

    "At least I don't have to go to work," Sali buried his head in his arms. He wanted to talk to Ashe so badly, and reminded himself (again) that Ashe was dead. Jackson Pruitt was dead. Several of Mr. Winkler's wolves had died, too, in Zeke Tanner's attempt at kidnapping many of Star Cove's teens. If Ashe hadn't done as he did, half the community might have died as well. Shirley Walker had suspended work for the Star Cove teens in the groves—the peach harvest was nearly over, anyway. She'd hired adults from Corpus Christi to finish it.

    Jackson Pruitt's funeral had been held in the groves three days earlier. Marcie was heartbroken over her son's death and Jack's older brother Dustin blamed himself—he'd stayed in Dallas, working there with Winkler's Pack instead of staying in Star Cove. Now, Sali and Marco were asking about a funeral for Ashe, who'd burned himself and the enemy to save the Star Cove community. There wasn't even a thread of clothing or piece of Ashe's leather wallet left behind as a remembrance.

    Dori, Wynn and Sali moved about numbly after the incident. Finally, they'd been allowed to remember. Ashe hadn't been an insignificant shapeshifter, capable of only turning into a tiny, bumblebee bat. He'd held amazing abilities. Now, all that was gone. Sali sighed and lifted his head to gaze at his brother.

    "Salidar, tomorrow is your birthday," Denise DeLuca reminded him.

    "Yeah. Happy birthday," Sali mumbled sarcastically.

    "And Jonas, Nathan and your father are interviewing for the Principal's position next week. We have to hire quickly or we won't be ready for the school year to start."

    "I don't want to go to school."

    "It'll be hard, Sali, I know. Ashe was always there." Marco sighed and looked away, remembering a time when he'd felt lost after James' death. "Sali, we all leaned on Ashe. We didn't realize we were doing it, but we did." Marco turned back to Sali and lifted a muffin from the basket his mother prepared. He was staying at home for the present; Winkler had given him time off.

    "It's too bad Dawn and Randy couldn't stay; it was easier to talk to Adele when they were with us," Denise fitted another muffin into the empty space left after Marco's theft.

    "Randy always knows the right things to say," Marco agreed. "He's a good writer."

    Dawn and Randy had remained in Star Cove for Jackson's funeral, then both had gone home afterward. The ruins of Winkler's beach house had been cleared away, too, and plans were made to rebuild quickly. Winkler was currently staying in Dallas; he, Trajan, Trace and the others had flown back shortly after the incident.

    That's what they all called it—the incident. A page in their history that would never be recorded anywhere. Marcie and Jason had decided to buy Cordell Feed and Seed, so they could leave the bad memories of Star Cove behind. They'd already gone back to Oklahoma, staying in Clinton and driving to Cordell to run the store until the sale was finalized.

    Denise had spent as much time with Marcie as she could, helping to pack things away and giving Jackson's belongings to charity. What Marcie could bear to part with, anyway. So far, nobody had touched Ashe's things. Aedan Evans wouldn't allow it.

    "School is gonna suck," Sali said, running a finger through the ring of moisture his soda can left on the island.

    "Been there," Marco sighed.

    * * *

    Winkler placed the paper copy of the email message inside a plastic sleeve. The fragile sheet was burned around the edges and threatened to crumble if handled directly. He'd read the message several time. Considered handing a copy to Aedan Evans several times. Something always held him back.

    Anthony Hancock had discovered Ashe's dictionary in the rubble left from the beach house fire. Thick books were difficult to burn completely. The cover and edges of the heavy dictionary were singed but the inner pages remained intact, protecting the paper Ashe had slipped into the center of the book. Tony hadn't seen the message—he'd handed the dictionary to Winkler, suggesting that Ashe's parents might like to have it. Tony had then returned to England and was likely on another assignment already. Winkler snorted at the thought.

    Winkler, handling Ashe's dictionary carefully sometime later, found the paper Ashe had slipped between its pages. He'd glimpsed the corner of it protruding from the blackened edges. Greetings, the email read. I am your grandfather. Ashe had never mentioned the contact to anyone. Winkler attempted to trace the email, but the trail had gone cold long ago. Nothing came of it, though he'd asked Matt Michaels for help. Now, Winkler waited for another sign. Had two or three of his best watching for it, in fact.

    * * *

    "We found nothing." Gavin Montegue placed a folder of information on Wlodek's antique desk. Wlodek, Head of the Vampire Council, sat in his richly decorated study; surrounded by books any collector would pay a fortune to procure and original artwork that would fetch millions. A large Monet hung on one wall, a David portrait of Napoleon on another, in addition to other items that would sell quickly should they ever be offered. Wlodek had no interest in letting any of his treasures go.

    Wlodek was nearing three thousand years in age, but with jet-black hair and eyes to match, he still looked young. All vampires did. Anyone would have to come quite close to Wlodek in order to see the depth of knowledge and millennia of experience in his dark eyes. Wlodek never allowed anyone to get that close.

    Gavin, one of three Council Assassins, had worked with two of Wlodek's twelve Enforcers, searching for Wildrif's trail. Without blinking, he presented the information he had to the Head of the Vampire Council. Gavin's quarry had managed to escape a maximum-security prison in Colorado and then succeeded in eluding human authorities and vampire trackers. None knew exactly how that was accomplished. Wlodek still wanted Wildrif. Mostly he wanted Wildrif dead, but he had to find him first.

    Wlodek's worries concerning the quarter-blood Dark Elemaiya was shared by the Vampire Council. They'd dealt with this threat before. The Dark Elemaiya, many of whom had been made vampire in the past, had almost taken down the U.S. government and many other world powers. Only Wlodek and a handful of talented and vigilant vampires, with help from Weldon Harper, the werewolf Grand Master and some of his best wolves, had managed to track and eliminate those Dark vampires who sought to rule the planet. A slight rift had occurred afterward—Weldon and Wlodek differed on how the Dark vampires had been destroyed. They'd called something of a truce, however, and agreed not to speak of it again.

    "Unfortunately we do not have the resources to continue tracking him, but Matthew Michaels is also hunting this one since he escaped his government's imprisonment. Mr. Michaels has promised to keep me informed," Wlodek said. Wlodek seldom revealed any sort of emotion. Vampires had a habit of never showing anyone what they were thinking or how they felt. Vampires were immortals after all, and it never paid to make an enemy of any of them.

    "I shall take up the hunt again, should you wish it," Gavin nodded respectfully to Wlodek, keeping his dark eyes pinned to the older vampire. They gave nothing away. Gavin, as the Council's elite Assassin, also was adept at keeping his emotions hidden.

    "I will consider it if we learn anything new," Wlodek replied. "Meanwhile, I hear we have a rogue in Budapest. Charles has information for you. See him on your way out." Wlodek terminated the meeting.

    "Of course, Honored One." Gavin turned and walked out quickly. It never paid to try the old one's patience.

    * * *

    "Mr. Winkler, I heard a rumor." Jason held his cell to an ear as he walked down a sidewalk in Cordell. Summers could be quite hot in western Oklahoma and Jason Landers kept to the shade as much as possible, walking under awnings of small businesses that lined the street.

    "You think it's a reliable rumor?"

    "I'd check it out, I think," Jason said. "I left Marcie at the store—she doesn't know anything about it. She's still pretty torn up."

    "I understand. I just hope your rumor bears some fruit."

    "Me too. I hate to let both of 'em go like that."

    "Yeah. I'll check it out, Jason. You stay with Marcie."

    "Sure, boss." Jason sighed, tapped end on his cell and kept walking.

    * * *

    "I hold hope that my Jewels still live," Friesianna snapped at Parlethis. Parlethis did nothing to conceal his desire to work closely with the Queen as assassin and Sentinel. He'd worked his way up through the ranks of soldiers and guards surrounding the Queen. After the attempt to take the half-child, however, none of the Jewel brothers or the fifteen others had returned to the Queen's camp.

    "Their talismans have not returned to me as they would have, had my Jewels perished," Friesianna informed Parlethis haughtily. "Surely you would not settle for the position without the power talisman. Those alone will guarantee an extra four relocations. They remain with my Jewels, I tell you. I have them not."

    Rabis stood nearby, his head bowed as if in thought. The Queen had not ventured to ask his opinion on the matter. The talismans might not return for another reason, but the Queen had ignored the Ekdi H'Morr all along, calling it a book of myth and lies. Rabis knew the Dark King's Destroyers hadn't returned, either, and their talismans had failed to come to Baltis. Rabis held back a sigh of impatience. Friesianna might learn someday, when it was far too late, just what the terms failure and comeuppance actually meant.

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