I spent the night at the lake again, but this time I didnt sleep.Instead I sat along the bank, listening to the world hum around me as though I was an audience member at a musical show.Frogs croaked melodically, blowing out their chests with proud puffs.
Fish swam to the lakes surface to gulp down the water bugs that hovered there, then dived back down to the depths with soft flips of their tails. Birds flew overhead in V formation, and small animals rustled through the reeds, chasing one another as they ferreted out their next meal.
Then came the grand finale as the sun, an enormous, watery orb, rose to its place of prominence in the sky, signaling that it was the all-powerful king and Earth was its subject.
As I sat there, watching the one thing that could kill me in an instant if it werent for the ring Katherine gave me, a sense of calm rippled through my body. The world was beautiful and magical and I was lucky to still have a place in it.
Grabbing a perfectly round, flat stone, I stood and looked out over the water. I closed my eyes.If it skips four times, everything will be okay.Then I let the stone soar. It skipped once twice three times
“Four skips! Impressive!” a voice cheered, followed by enthusiastic clapping.
I turned around just as Callie leaped into my arms.
“Youre in a good mood,” she said with a smile.
“I am. And its all thanks to you.”
She tucked her arm through mine. “In that case, I know just how you can thank me!”
I felt her pulse beating through my coat, and her blood smelled nearly irresistible. But the stone had skipped four times, so I bent down to kiss her.
Callie and I spent all day together, and then I slept at the lake again. When I arrived home the following day at dusk, I found a pile of clothes, including the black trousers and gray coat Id modeled for Lexi, on the floor outside my room. On top of the pile was a note, written in block handwriting.
Follow your heart. You’re lucky you still have one.
I scooped the bundle up into my arms, touched, relieved, and a little bit sad all at once.
I changed into a blue chambray shirt and white trousers and slicked my hair back in the mirror. I looked like any young man preparing for a rendezvous with a pretty girl. I just wished it were that simple.
I crept down the stairs, waiting for someone to jump out of the shadows to stop me–to tell me my plan would never work. But I made it all the way down and then through the kitchen and out the backdoor without that happening.
Once outside, I walked the two miles to Laurel Street with my hands in my pockets, whistling the strains of “God Save the South.” I paused to pick a white magnolia from a bush in front of a peach-colored mansion at the bottom of Callies street.
“Stefan!” an urgent whisper came from behind the tree at the bottom of the Gallagher driveway.
Callie stepped into view. Her hair was loose and flowing down her back, and she was wearing a white nightdress trimmed in eyelet lace, just like the first time Id seen her, except that this time she was standing close enough to me that I could see that although she was wearing a heavy gray woolen shawl, she wasnt wearing a petticoat. I turned away, suddenly shy.
“Stefan,” Callie murmured, brushing my arm with her fingers. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” I said. I took the flower and tucked it behind her ear.
She smiled. “Youre such a gentleman.”
“And youre beautiful,” I responded, reaching out to push a strand of hair behind her ear. Her tresses were as soft as rose petals and smelled of honey. I wanted to stay there forever, watching her breath form puffs of air in front of me.
“Callie ” I began, when the bells of a distant church chimed suddenly into the frosty air. Twelve bells. Midnight. The witching hour.
“Its time,” Callie said. “Jaspers shift lasts until twelve thirty, but I can tell him youre there to relieve him early. That will buy us some time. Once the second guard shows up, youll be long gone. But we have to hurry.” She sounded very sure of herself, but her trembling lip gave away her emotions. I wanted to throw my arms around her, tuck her into bed, and whisper “sweet dreams” in her ear. But I, a vampire, was relying on this child to protect me.
Callie knit her fingers together as if in silent prayer. Then she nodded and gave me a wan smile. “Dont be scared,” she said, pressing her palm into mine. But I could feel her heart thumping at a gallop from the pulse points in her palm.
She led me through the iron gates and around the gravel driveway, and opened a nondescript door on the side of the house.
“Be quiet,” Callie commanded, as my eyes adjusted to the dark. Unlike the rest of the house, with its polished marble and gleaming oak, this entrance was strictly utilitarian, designed for servants to have easy access to the storage space in the attic without disturbing the residents of the house. A steep staircase, made of unfinished walnut beams, loomed in front of us. Callie cocked her head, listening for something. I followed suit, although my thoughts were buzzing too loudly for me to hear specific words.
Suddenly, I heard a scraping sound from the floor above us. Callie glanced at me; shed heard it as well.
“Jasper,” Callie explained. “We should go up.” She walked up the rickety steps, as I followed quickly behind her. Once we got to the cracked, whitewashed door, she knocked–two quick raps followed by a pause, then a longer one.
A lock clicked, and then we heard the scratch of metal against metal as Jasper undid the bolt. Finally, he opened the door, wedging his body next to the edge so we couldnt see inside.
“Well, well, well. Callie and the man who staked the vampire, then ran for his life. To what do we owe the pleasure?” Jasper leered. I shifted uncomfortably, trying to get a glimpse inside the room.
“Hello, Jasper,” Callie said, brushing past him and motioning for me to follow. In the darkness, I could just make out a sizable cage in the corner. A large, unmoving lump lay inside. “Father needs you in the study. Stefan will take over until the next shift arrives.”
“Meet Jasper in the study?” a loud voice boomed. “But Im right here.”
Callies father was perched at a rickety table behind the door, a hand of cards laid out in front of him. In the center of the table, a single candle flickered.
“Oh, Father.” Callie giggled. The sound felt forced, out of place. “I must have been confused. I know youd wanted to play cards tonight, and I suppose I thought youd be more comfortable in the study or ” she began, her voice wavering. She licked her lips and sat down at the table across from Gallagher.
“Youre kind to think of me, girl,” Gallagher said gruffly.
“Mr. Gallagher,” I said, bowing slightly. “I was told to report for duty, but perhaps Im mistaken?” The confusion wasnt hard to feign. Callie had sworn her father would be out of the house.
“Is that right, Jasper?” Gallagher asked.
“Guess it is. He aint bad, that one. A little nervous, but when he sticks em, he sticks em good.”
Gallagher nodded, taking in the information.
“And this is that boy you trust, Miss Callie?” Gallagher asked his daughter.
Callie nodded, her cheeks reddening under her freckles. Then finally, thankfully, Gallagher stood up, his chair scraping against the floor.
“Well, then, Ill leave you boys to it,” he said, taking his whiskey and following his daughter downstairs.
“So youre Gallaghers guy now, aint you?” Jasper asked, shoving a vervain-soaked stake in my hands. My skin burned, and pain shot through my arms. I fought the urge to growl and clamped down on my tongue. Tensing, I felt the stake with only two fingers, trying to minimize the contact the poisoned wood had with my body.
“Well, I aint going to stick around,” Jasper continued. “The vampires hungry tonight. Hope he eats you. And while he does that, Im going to spend some time with Miss Callie and her daddy. Show em youre not the only man who can be all friendly and genteel-like,” Jasper said. His movements were loose, and I could smell whiskey on his breath.
Damon reared up, fangs bared, causing me to jump back in surprise.
He laughed, a hoarse chuckle, then collapsed against the side of the cage, exhausted from the exertion.
“What, brother? Scared of a vampire?”
I ignored him as I began wresting the door off the structure. Damon watched in curiosity and then slowly crawled over toward me. He was just reaching out when I felt a searing pain radiate from my spine through my entire body.
“Gotcha!” a voice yelled.