Richelle Mead

New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Fantasy Author

The Fiery Heart, Chapter 1

Available November 19.  Buy/pre-order it here!


CHAPTER 1
Adrian

            I won’t lie. Walking into a room and seeing your girlfriend reading a baby-name book can kind of make your heart stop.

            “I’m no expert,” I began, choosing my words carefully. “Well—actually, I am. And I’m pretty sure there are certain things we have to do before you need to be reading that.”

            Sydney Sage, the aforementioned girlfriend and light of my life, didn’t even look up, though a hint of a smile played at her lips. “It’s for the initiation,” she said matter-of-factly, as though she were talking about getting her nails done or picking up groceries instead of joining a coven of witches. “I have to have a ‘magical’ name they use during their gatherings.”

            “Right. Magical name, initiation. Just another day in the life, huh?” Not that I was one to talk, seeing as I was a vampire with the fantastic yet complicated ability to heal and compel people.

            This time, I got a full smile, and she lifted her gaze. Afternoon sunlight filtering through my bedroom window caught her eyes and brought out the amber glints within them. They widened in surprise when she noticed the three stacked boxes I was carrying. “What are those?”

            “A revolution in music,” I declared, reverently setting them on the floor. I opened the top one and unveiled a record player. “I saw a sign that some guy was selling them on campus.” I opened another box full of records and lifted out Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. “Now I can listen to music in its purest form.”

            She didn’t look impressed, surprising for someone who thought my 1967 Mustang—which she’d named the Ivashkinator—was some sort of holy shrine. “I’m pretty sure digital music is as pure as it gets. That was a waste of money, Adrian. I can fit all of the songs in those boxes on my phone.”

            “Can you fit the other six boxes that are in my car on your phone?”

            She blinked in astonishment and then turned wary. “Adrian, how much did you pay for all that?”

            I waved off the question. “Hey, I can still make the car payment. Barely.” I at least didn’t have to pay rent, since the place was prepaid, but I had plenty of other bills. “Besides, I’ve got a bigger budget for this kind of stuff, now that someone made me quit smoking and cut back on happy hour.”

            “More like happy day,” she said archly. “I’m looking out for your health.”

            I sat down beside her on the bed. “Just like I’m looking out for you and your caffeine addiction.” It was a deal we’d made, forming our own sort of support group. I quit smoking and cut back to one drink a day. She’d ousted her obsessive dieting for a healthy amount of calories and was down to only one cup of coffee a day. Surprisingly, she’d had a harder time with that than I’d had with alcohol. In those first few days, I thought I’d have to check her into caffeine rehab.

             “It wasn’t an addiction,” she grumbled, still bitter. “More of a . . .  lifestyle choice.”

            I laughed and drew her face to mine in a kiss, and just like that, the rest of the world vanished. There were no name books, no records, no habits. There was just her and the feel of her lips, the exquisite way they managed to be soft and fierce at the same time. The rest of the world thought she was stiff and cold. Only I knew the truth about the passion and hunger that was locked up within her—well, me and Jill, the girl who could see inside my mind because of a psychic bond we shared.

            As I laid Sydney back on the bed, I had that faint, fleeting thought I always did, of how taboo what we were doing was. Humans and Moroi vampires had stopped intermingling when my race hid from the world in the Dark Ages. We’d done it for safety, deciding it was best if humans didn’t know of our existence. Now, my people and hers (the ones who knew about Moroi) considered relationships like this wrong and, among some circles, dark and twisted. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything except her and the way touching her drove me wild, even as her calm and steady presence soothed the storms that raged within me.

            That didn’t mean we flaunted this, though. In fact, our romance was a tightly guarded secret, one that required a lot of sneaking around and carefully calculated planning. Even now, the clock was ticking. This was our weekday pattern. She had an independent study for her last period of the day at school, one managed by a lenient teacher who let her take off early and race over here. We’d get one precious hour of making out or talking—usually making out, made more frantic by the pressure bearing down on us—and then she was back to her private school, just as her clingy and vampire-hating sister Zoe got out of class.

            Somehow, Sydney had an internal clock that told her when time was up. I think it was part of her inherent ability to keep track of a hundred things at once. Not me. In these moments, my thoughts were usually focused on getting her shirt off and whether I’d get past the bra this time. So far, I hadn’t.

            She sat up, cheeks flushed and golden hair tousled. She was so beautiful that it made my soul ache. I always wished desperately that I could paint her in these moments and immortalize that look in her eyes. There was a softness in them that I rarely saw at other times, a total and complete vulnerability in someone who was normally so guarded and analytical in the rest of her life. But although I was a decent painter, capturing her on canvas was beyond my skill.

            She collected her brown blouse and buttoned it up, hiding the brightness of turquoise lace with the conservative attire she liked to armor herself in. She’d done an overhaul of her bras in the last month, and though I was always sad to see them disappear, it made me happy to know they were there, those secret spots of color in her life.

            As she walked over to the mirror at my dresser, I summoned some of the spirit magic within me to get a glimpse of her aura, the energy that surrounded all living things. The magic brought a brief surge of pleasure inside me, and then I saw it, that shining light around her. It was its typical self, a scholar’s yellow balanced with the richer purple of passion and spirituality. A blink of the eye, and her aura faded away, as did the deadly exhilaration of spirit.

            She finished smoothing her hair and looked down. “What’s this?”

            “Hmm?” I came to stand behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist. Then, I saw what she’d picked up and stiffened: sparkling cuff links set with rubies and diamonds. And just like that, the warmth and joy I’d just felt was replaced by a cold but familiar darkness. “They were a birthday present from Aunt Tatiana a few years ago.”

            Sydney held one up and studied it with an expert eye. She grinned. “You’ve got a fortune here. This is platinum. Sell these, and you’d have allowance for life. And all the records you want.”

            “I’d sleep in a cardboard box before I sold those.”

            She noticed the change in me and turned around, her expression filled with concern. “Hey, I was just joking.” Her hand gently touched my face. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

            But it wasn’t okay. The world was suddenly a cruel, hopeless place, empty with the loss of my aunt, queen of the Moroi and the only relative who hadn’t judged me. I felt a lump in my throat, and the walls seemed to close in on me as I remembered the way she’d been stabbed to death and how they’d paraded those bloody pictures around when trying to find her killer. It didn’t matter that the killer was locked away and slated for execution. It wouldn’t bring Aunt Tatiana back. She was gone, off to places I couldn’t follow—at least not yet—and I was here, alone and insignificant and floundering . . .

            “Adrian.”

            Sydney’s voice was calm but firm, and slowly, I dredged myself out of the despair that could come on so quickly and heavily, a darkness that had increased over the years the more I used spirit. It was the price for that kind of power, and these sudden shifts had become more and more frequent recently. I focused on her eyes, and the light returned to the world. I still ached for my aunt, but Sydney was here, my hope and my anchor. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t misunderstood. Swallowing, I nodded and gave her a weak smile as spirit’s dark hand released its hold on me. For now.

            “I’m okay.” Seeing the doubt in her face, I pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Really. You need to go, Sage. You’ll make Zoe wonder, and be late for your witch meeting.”

            She stared at me with concern a few moments longer and then relaxed a little. “Okay. But if you need anything—”

            “I know, I know. Call on the Love Phone.”

            That brought her smile back. We’d recently acquired secret prepaid cell phones that the Alchemists, the organization she worked for, wouldn’t be able to track. Not that they regularly tracked her main phone—but they certainly could if they thought something suspicious was happening, and we didn’t want a trail of texts and calls.

            “And I’ll come by tonight,” I added.

            At that, her features hardened again. “Adrian, no. It’s too risky.”

            Another of spirit’s benefits was the ability to visit people in their dreams. It was a handy way to talk since we didn’t have a lot of time together in the waking world—and because we didn’t spend much time talking in the waking world these days—but like any use of spirit, it was a continual risk to my sanity. It worried her a lot, but I considered it a small thing in order to be with her.

            “No arguments,” I warned. “I want to know how things go. And I know you’ll want to know how things go for me.”

            “Adrian—”

            “I’ll keep it short,” I promised.

            She reluctantly agreed—not looking happy at all—and I walked her out to the door. As we cut through the living room, she paused at a small terrarium sitting near the window. Smiling, she knelt down and tapped the glass. Inside was a dragon.

            No, really. Technically, it was called a callistana, but we rarely used that term. We usually called him Hopper. Sydney had summoned him from some demonic realm as a sort of helper. Mostly he seemed to want to help us out by eating all the junk food in my apartment. She and I were tied to him, and to maintain his health, we had to take turns hanging out with him. Since Zoe had moved in, however, my place had become his primary residence. Sydney lifted the lid of the tank and let the small golden-scaled creature scurry into her hand. He gazed up at her adoringly, and I couldn’t blame him for that.

            “He’s been out for a while,” she said. “You ready to take a break?” Hopper could exist in this living form or be transformed into a small statue, which helped avoid uncomfortable questions when people came by. Only she could transform him, though.

            “Yeah. He keeps trying to eat my paints. And I don’t want him to watch me kiss you goodbye.”

            She gave him a light tickle on the chin and spoke the words that turned him into a statue. Life was certainly easier that way, but again, his health required he come out now and then. That, and the little guy had grown on me.

            “I’ll take him for a while,” she said, slipping him into her purse. Even if he was inert, he still benefited from being near her.

             Free of his beady little gaze, I gave her a long kiss goodbye, one I was reluctant to let end. I cupped her face in my hands.

            “Escape plan number seventeen,” I told her. “Run away and open a juice stand in Fresno.”

             “Why Fresno?”

            “Sounds like the kind of place people drink a lot of juice.”

            She grinned and kissed me again. The “escape plans” were a running joke with us, always far-fetched and numbered in no particular order. I usually made them up on the spot. What was sad, though, was that they were actually more thought-out than any real plans we had. Both of us were painfully aware that we were very much living in the now, with a future that was anything but clear.

            Breaking that second kiss was difficult too, but she finally managed it, and I watched her walk away. My apartment seemed dimmer in her absence.

            I brought in the rest of the boxes from my car and sifted through the treasures within. Most of the albums were from the sixties and seventies, with a little eighties here and there. They weren’t organized, but I didn’t make any attempts at that. Once Sydney got over her stance that they were a wasteful splurge, she wouldn’t be able to help herself and would end up sorting them all by artist or genre or color. For now, I set up the record player in my living room and pulled out an album at random: Machine Head by Deep Purple.

            I had a few more hours until dinner, so I crouched down in front of an easel, staring up at the blank canvas as I tried to decide how to deal with my current assignment in advanced oil painting: a self-portrait. It didn’t have to be an exact likeness. It could be abstract. It could be anything, so long as it was representative of me. And I was stumped. I could’ve painted anyone else I knew. Maybe I couldn’t capture that exact look of rapture Sydney had in my arms, but I could paint her aura or the color of her eyes. I could have painted the wistful, fragile face of my friend Jill Mastrano Dragomir, a young princess of the Moroi. I could have painted flaming roses in tribute to my ex-girlfriend, who’d torn my heart apart yet still managed to make me admire her.

            But myself? I didn’t know what to do for me. Maybe it was just an artistic block. Maybe I just didn’t know myself. As I stared at the canvas, my frustration growing, I had to fight off the need to go to my neglected liquor cupboard and pour a drink. Alcohol didn’t necessarily make for the best art, but it usually inspired something. I could practically taste the vodka already. I could mix it with orange juice and pretend I was being healthy. My fingers twitched, and my feet nearly carried me to the kitchen—but I resisted. The earnestness in Sydney’s eyes burned through my mind, and I focused back on the canvas. I could do this—sober. I’d promised her I’d have only one drink a day, and I’d hold true to that. And for the time being, that one drink was needed for the end of the day, when I was ready for bed. I didn’t sleep well. I never had in my entire life, so I had to use whatever help I could get.

            My sober resolve didn’t result in inspiration, though, and when five o’clock came around, the canvas remained bare. I stood up and stretched out the kinks in my body, feeling a return of that earlier darkness. It was more angry than sad, laced with the frustration of not being able to do this. My art teachers claimed I had talent, but in moments like this, I felt like the slacker most people had always said I was, destined for a lifetime of failure. It was especially depressing when I thought about Sydney, who knew everything about everything and could excel at any career she wanted. Putting aside the vampire-human problem, I had to wonder what I could possibly offer her. I couldn’t even pronounce half the things that interested her, let alone discuss them. If we ever managed some normal life together, she’d be out paying the bills while I stayed home and cleaned. And I really wasn’t good at that either. If she just wanted to come home at night to eye candy with good hair, I could probably do that reasonably well.

            I knew these fears eating at me were being amped up by spirit. Not all of them were real, but they were hard to shake. I left the art behind and stepped outside my door, hoping to find distraction in the night to come. The sun was going down outside, and the Palm Springs winter evening barely required a light jacket. It was a favorite time of the evening for Moroi, when there was still light but not enough to be uncomfortable. We could handle some sunlight, not like Strigoi—the undead vampires who killed for their blood. Sunlight destroyed them, which was a perk for us. We needed all the help we could get in the fight against them.

            I drove out to Vista Azul, a suburb only ten minutes away from downtown that housed Amberwood Prep, the private boarding school that Sydney and the rest of our motley crew attended. Sydney was normally the group’s designated chauffeur, but that dubious honor had fallen on me tonight while she scurried off to her clandestine meeting with the coven. The gang was all waiting at the curb outside the girls’ dorm as I pulled up. Leaning across the passenger seat, I opened up the door. “All aboard,” I said.

            They piled in. There were five of them now, plus me, bringing us up to a lucky seven, had Sydney been there. When we’d first come to Palm Springs, there’d just been four. Jill, the reason we were all here, scooted in beside me and flashed me a grin.

            If Sydney was the main calming force in my life, Jill was the second. She was only fifteen, seven years younger than me, but there was a grace and wisdom that radiated from her already. Sydney might be the love of my life, but Jill understood me in a way no one else could. It was kind of hard not to, with that psychic bond. It had been forged when I used spirit to save her life last year—and when I say “save,” I mean it. Jill had technically been dead, only for less than a minute, but dead nonetheless. I’d used spirit’s power to perform a miraculous feat of healing and bring her back before the next world could claim her. That miracle had bonded us with a connection that allowed her to feel and see my thoughts—though not the other way around.

            People brought back that way were called “shadow-kissed,” and that alone would have been enough to mess up any kid. Jill had the added misfortune of being one of two people left in a dying line of Moroi royalty. This was recent news to her, and her sister, Lissa—the Moroi queen and a good friend of mine—needed Jill alive in order to hold on to her throne. Those who opposed Lissa’s liberal rule consequently wanted Jill dead, in order to invoke an ancient family law requiring a monarch to have one other living family member. And so, someone had come up with the questionably brilliant idea to send Jill into hiding in the middle of a human city in the desert. Because seriously, what vampire would want to live here? It was certainly a question I asked myself a lot.

            Jill’s three bodyguards climbed into the backseat. They were all dhampirs, a race born of mixed vampire and human heritage from the time our races had shared in free love. They were stronger and faster than the rest of us, making ideal warriors in the battle against Strigoi and royal assassins. Eddie Castile was the de facto leader of the group, a dependable rock who’d been with Jill from the beginning. Angeline Dawes, the red-haired spitfire, was slightly less dependable. And by “less dependable,” I mean, “not at all.” She was a scrapper in a fight, though. The newest addition to the group was Neil Raymond, aka Tall, Proper, and Boring. For reasons I didn’t understand, Jill and Angeline seemed to think his non-smiling demeanor was a sign of some kind of noble character. The fact that he’d gone to school in England and had picked up a faint British accent especially seemed to fire up their estrogen.

            The last member of the party stood outside the car, refusing to get in. Zoe Sage, Sydney’s sister.

            She leaned forward and met my eyes with brown ones almost like Sydney’s, but with less gold. “There’s no room,” she said. “Your car doesn’t have enough seats.”

            “Not true,” I told her. On cue, Jill moved closer to me. “This seat’s meant to hold three. Last owner even fitted it with an extra seat belt.” While that was safer for modern times, Sydney had nearly had a heart attack over altering the Mustang from its original state. “Besides, we’re all family, right?” To give us easy access to one another, we’d made Amberwood believe we were all siblings or cousins. When Neil arrived, however, the Alchemists had finally given up on making him a relative since things were getting kind of ridiculous.

            Zoe stared at the empty spot for several seconds. Even though the seat really was long, she’d still be getting cozy with Jill. Zoe had been at Amberwood for a month but was in full possession of all the hang-ups and prejudices her people had around vampires and dhampirs. I knew them well because Sydney used to have all of them too. It was ironic because the Alchemists’ mission was to keep the world of vampires and the supernatural hidden from their fellow humans, who they feared wouldn’t be able to handle it. The Alchemists were driven by the belief that members of my kind were twisted parts of nature best ignored and kept separate from humans, lest we taint them with our evil. They helped us grudgingly and were useful in a situation like Jill’s, when arrangements with human authorities and school officials needed to occur behind the scenes. Alchemists excelled at making things happen. That was how Sydney had originally been drafted, to smooth the way for Jill and her exile, since the Alchemists didn’t want a Moroi civil war. Zoe had been sent recently as an apprentice and had become a huge pain in the ass for hiding our relationship.

            “You don’t have to go if you’re afraid,” I said. There was probably nothing else I could’ve said that would’ve motivated her more. She was driven to become a super Alchemist, largely to impress the Sage father, who, I’d concluded after many stories, was a major asshole.

            Zoe took a deep breath and steeled herself. Without another world, she climbed in beside Jill and slammed the door, huddling as close to it as possible. “Sydney should’ve left the SUV,” she muttered a little while later.

            “Where is Sage, anyway? Er, Sage Senior,” I amended, pulling out of the school’s driveway. “Not that I don’t like chauffeuring you guys around. You should’ve brought me a little black cap, Jailbait.” I nudged Jill, who nudged me back. “You could whip up something like that in your sewing club.”

            “She’s off doing some project for Ms. Terwilliger,” said Zoe disapprovingly. “She’s always doing something for her. I don’t get why history research takes up so much time.”

            Little did Zoe know that said project involved Sydney being initiated into her teacher’s coven. Human magic was still a strange and mysterious thing to me—and completely anathema to the Alchemists—but Sydney was apparently a natural. No surprise, seeing as she was a natural at everything. She’d overcome her fears of it, just as she had of me, and was now fully immersed in learning the trade from her zany yet loveable mentor, Jackie Terwilliger. To say the Alchemists wouldn’t like that was an understatement. In fact, it was really a toss-up which would piss them off more: learning the arcane arts or making out with a vampire. It would almost be comical, if not for the fact that I worried the hard-core zealots among the Alchemists would do something terrible to Sydney if she was ever caught. It was why Zoe shadowing her had made everything so dangerous lately.

            “Because it’s Sydney,” said Eddie from the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I could see an easy smile on his face, though there was a perpetual sharpness in his eyes as he scanned the world for danger. He and Neil had been trained by the guardians, the dhampir organization of badasses that protected the Moroi. “Giving one hundred percent to a task is slacking for her.”

            Zoe shook her head, not as amused as the rest of us. “It’s just a stupid class. She only needs to pass.”

            No, I thought. She needs to learn. Sydney didn’t just eat up knowledge for the sake of her vocation. She did it because she loved it. And what she would’ve loved more than anything was to lose herself in the academic throes of college, where she could learn anything she wanted. Instead, she’d been born into her family job, jumping when the Alchemists ordered her to new assignments. She’d already graduated from high school but treated this second senior year as seriously as the first, eager to learn whatever she could.

            Someday, when this is all over, and Jill is safe, we’ll run away from everything. I didn’t know where, and I didn’t know how, but Sydney would figure out those logistics. She’d escape the Alchemists’ hold and become Dr. Sydney Sage, Ph.D, while I . . . well, did something.

            I felt a small hand on my arm and glanced briefly down to see Jill looking sympathetically up at me, her jade-colored eyes shining. She knew what I was thinking, knew about the fantasies I often spun. I gave her a wan smile back.

            We drove across town, then to the outskirts of Palm Springs to the home of Clarence Donahue, the only Moroi foolish enough to live in this desert until my friends and I had shown up last fall. Old Clarence was kind of a crackpot, but he was a nice enough one who’d welcomed a ragtag group of Moroi and dhampirs and allowed us to use his feeder/housekeeper. Moroi don’t have to kill for blood like Strigoi did, but we did need it at least a couple times a week. Fortunately, there were plenty of humans in the world happy to provide it in exchange for a life spent on the endorphin high brought on by a vampire bite.

            We found Clarence in the living room, sitting in his massive leather chair and using a magnifying glass to read some ancient book. He looked up at our entrance, startled. “Here on a Thursday! What a nice surprise.”

            “It’s Friday, Mr. Donahue,” said Jill gently, leaning down to kiss his cheek.

            He regarded her fondly. “Is it? Weren’t you just here yesterday? Well, no matter. Dorothy, I’m sure, will be happy to accommodate you.”

Dorothy, his aging housekeeper, looked very accommodating. She’d hit the jackpot when Jill and I arrived in Palm Springs. Older Moroi didn’t drink as much blood as young ones, and while Clarence could still provide an occasional high, frequent visits from Jill and me provided a near-constant one for her.

            Jill hurried over to Dorothy. “Can I go now?” The older woman nodded eagerly, and the two of them left the room for more private accommodations. A look of distaste crossed Zoe’s face, though she said nothing. Seeing her expression and the way she sat far away from everyone else was so like Sydney in the old days, I almost smiled.

            Angeline was practically bouncing up and down on the couch. “What’s for dinner?” She had an unusual southern accent from growing up in a rural mountain community of Moroi, dhampirs, and humans who were the only ones I knew of that freely lived together and intermarried. Everyone else in their respective races regarded them with a kind of mingled horror and fascination. As appealing as that openness was, living with them had never crossed my mind in my fantasies with Sydney. I hated camping.

            No one answered. Angeline looked from face to face. “Well? Why isn’t there food here?” Dhampirs didn’t drink blood and could eat the regular kinds of food humans did. Moroi also needed that sort of food, though we didn’t need it in nearly the same quantities. It took a lot of energy to keep that active dhampir metabolism fired up.

            These regular gatherings had become kind of a family dinner affair, not just for blood but also for regular food. It was a nice way to pretend we led normal lives. “There’s always food,” she pointed out, in case we’d never noticed. “I liked that Indian food we had the other day. That masala or whatever stuff. But I don’t know if we should go there any more until they start calling it Native American food. It’s not very polite.”

            “Sydney usually takes care of food,” said Eddie, ignoring Angeline’s familiar and endearing tendency to stray into tangents.

            “Not usually,” I corrected. “Always.”

            Angeline’s gaze swiveled to Zoe. “Why didn’t you have us pick up something?”

            “Because that’s not my job!” Zoe lifted her head up high. “We’re here to keep Jill’s cover and make sure she stays off the radar. It’s not my job to feed you guys.”

            “In which sense?” I asked. I knew perfectly well that was a mean thing to say to her but couldn’t resist. It took her a moment to pick up the double meaning. First she paled; then she turned an angry red.

            “Neither! I’m not your concierge. Neither is Sydney. I don’t know why she always takes care of that stuff for you. She should only be dealing with things that are essential for your survival. Ordering pizza isn’t one of them.”

            I faked a yawn and leaned back into the couch. “Maybe she figures if we’re well fed, you two won’t look that appetizing.”

            Zoe was too horrified to respond, and Eddie shot me a withering look. “Enough. It’s not that hard to order pizza. I’ll do it.”

Jill was back by the time he finished the call, an amused smile on her face. She’d apparently witnessed the exchange. The bond wasn’t on all the time, but it appeared to be going strong today. With the food dilemma settled, we actually managed to fall into a surprising camaraderie—well, everyone except Zoe, who just watched and waited. Things were unexpectedly cordial between Angeline and Eddie, despite a recent and disastrous bout of dating. She’d moved on and now pretended to be obsessed with Neil. If Eddie was still hurt, he didn’t show it, but that was typical of him. Sydney said he was secretly in love with Jill, something else he was good at hiding.

            I could’ve approved of that, but Jill, like Angeline, kept pretending she was in love with Neil. It was all an act for both girls, but no one—not even Sydney—believed me.

            “Are you okay with what we ordered?” Angeline asked him. “You didn’t pipe up with any requests.”

            Neil shook his head, face stoic. He kept his dark hair in a painfully short and efficient haircut. It was the kind of no-nonsense thing the Alchemists would’ve loved. “I can’t waste time quibbling over trivial things like pepperoni and mushrooms. If you’d gone to my school in Devonshire, you’d understand. For one of my sophomore classes, they left us alone on the moors to fend for ourselves and learn survival skills. Spend three days eating twigs and heather, and you’ll learn not to argue about any food coming your way.”

            Angeline and Jill cooed as though that was the most rugged, manly thing they’d ever heard. Eddie wore an expression that reflected what I felt, puzzling over whether this guy was as serious as he seemed or just some genius with swoon-worthy lines.

            Zoe’s cell phone rang. She looked at the display and jumped up in alarm. “It’s Dad.” Without a backward glance, she answered and scurried out of the room.

            I wasn’t one for premonition, but a chill ran down my spine. The Sage dad wasn’t the kind of warm and friendly guy who’d call to say hello during business hours, when he knew Zoe was doing her Alchemist thing. If something was up with her, something was up with Sydney. And that worried me.

            I barely paid any attention to the rest of the conversation as I counted the moments until Zoe’s return. When she did finally come back, her ashen face told me I was right. Something bad had happened.

            “What is it?” I demanded. “Is Sydney okay?” Too late I realized I shouldn’t have showed any special concern for Sydney. Not even our friends knew about me and her. Fortunately, all attention was on Zoe.

            She slowly shook her head, eyes wide and disbelieving. “I . . . I don’t know. It’s my parents. They’re getting divorced.”