“Next time we can dematerialize,” the male said. “I’m sorry that I don’t know the ins and outs of Caldwell yet.”
Well, we could just have had you take my vein, and you could have followed me—
Saxton shut that thought process right down. “The drive hasn’t been bad at all. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve ridden in a motorized vehicle. It’s quite pleasant, isn’t it.”
He’d forgotten how hypnotic automotives could be, the quiet hum of the engine, the steady stream of warm air at the feet, the softly blurred landscape—which in this case was all about gentle rolling farm fields covered in pristine snow.
“May I ask you something?” he heard himself say.
“Are you too warm?” Ruhn glanced over. “I can turn down the heat?”
As the male reached for the dials, Saxton shook his head. “The temperature is perfect. Thank you.”
After a moment, Ruhn looked across the interior again. “Am I going too fast?”
“No, you’re a terrific driver.”
Was that a blush hitting those cheeks? Saxton wondered.
“Anyway, I was just curious…” He cleared his throat and couldn’t pinpoint why this felt awkward. “I was unaware that you had a background that involved fighting. I’m assuming it was in the war—did you engage with the enemy down in South Carolina?”
When there was no response, he glanced over. Ruhn’s hand was no longer at ease on the wheel, his knuckles showing white—and those brows were now down tight.
“I’m sorry,” Saxton murmured. “I have offended you. My apologies.”
“No, it’s not that.”
The male did not continue, however, and their next turnoff arrived before any reply came.
“Up here, take another right,” Saxton murmured.
Ruhn slowed them down, put a blinker on, and executed a directional change. Then, about two hundred yards farther, a discreetly lit sign reading Blueberry Farm Estates appeared at the side of the road.
Saxton spoke into the thick silence. “That’s where his parents live—I mean, Rocke and Lyric. Blaylock’s sire and mahmen. They were the ones who came to him with the issue, so the older female must be up here a little farther.”
“Is this it?” Ruhn asked as they came upon a single mailbox with a hand-painted number on it.
“That’s the address, yes.”
The driveway into the property was unplowed, but there was at least one set of tracks marring the snow cover. Perhaps the humans who were harassing the female had paid her another visit?
“This will be bumpy,” Ruhn said. “Hold on.”
Saxton threw a hand out to catch the door as they lurched and lumbered off the plowed county road and onto a lane that could accommodate one car at the very most. Barren trees and brush choked the shoulders, as if Mother Nature disapproved of the ingress and was seeking to rectify the intrusion the only way she knew how.
Leaning forward, he glanced up and imagined in the warm months that a tunnel of leaves would form overhead.
And there was the farmhouse.
The manse was bigger than he thought it would be. He’d pictured in his head something the size of a hobbit cottage with maybe cockeyed shutters and a chimney that looked unreliable. Instead, the structure was a proper brick house, with four twelve-paned windows on the bottom, a wide front door, and eight six-paned windows on top. The slate roof was solid and clearly capable of surviving the apocalypse, and yes, there were shutters, but they were all perfectly hung and painted black.
Smoke curled from both of the chimneys. Which were straight as arrows.
There was also a tree.
Or more…a Tree.
In the center of the ring in front of the house, a gracious, thick-trunked maple tree grew out of the ground as if it were reaching for the heavens, great limbs stretching out and upward, the shape so perfectly balanced, surely it proved the hand of Providence existed and that the Creator was indeed an artist.
And yet all was not bucolic and at peaceful rest.
The second-floor window on the left corner was missing a pane of glass. Or at least, he assumed that was the case as there seemed to be a piece of plywood fitted into one of the six squares.
For some reason, that chilled him in a way the cold weather did not.
Ruhn brought the truck to a stop in front of the shallow steps that led to that glossy front door. “We are expected, yes?” the male said.
“Indeed. Or rather, I called the granddaughter. I don’t have a contact number for the female.”
Saxton opened his door, the winter chill rushing in like it was hell-bent on conquering the warmth they had artificially created, and as he put his Merrells into the snow, the squeaky, crunching sound was a testament that the ambient temperature was below zero. Taking a deep breath, the scent of wood smoke tingled in his sinuses and made him think of ads for Vermont.
There were lights on in the first floor, and through the parted curtains, he saw homemade furniture, the lines of which spoke to earlier ages, as well as walls covered in paper the flowered patterns of which had gone out of style in the Roaring Twenties.
This was not a life in decline, he thought, so much as the Old Ways preserved.
The front door opened just as Ruhn came around the bed of the truck, and the female in the doorway was in fact as Saxton expected: slightly stooped, with white hair cut into a bob, and a pleasant face that was deeply lined. But her eyes were alert and the smile was wide and the homemade dress was pressed and had a fine lace collar.
Given the way vampires aged, which was essentially in no manner at all until the very end of their lives, she had a decade, maybe more. But not much longer than that.
“You must be Saxton,” she said. “The King’s solicitor. I am Minnie. That’s short for Miniahna, but please do call me Minnie.”
As Saxton proceeded forward through the snow, he noted there had been footsteps coming and going off the front porch. “Yes, madam. And this is Ruhn, my…assistant.”
From behind him, Ruhn mumbled something and bowed low.
“Please, won’t you both come in.”
As she stepped aside, Saxton went up the steps and Ruhn was right in line, following him into the warm, golden interior. The scents of cinnamon and something sweet permeated the air, making him realize he had forgotten to have anything for First Meal—and oh, was that beeswax?
Stomping the snow from his shoe treads on the mat, he glanced around. Directly ahead, there was a staircase with a carved wooden banister that had clearly been polished on a regular basis—and that had to be where he was picking up that undertone of lemon.
“I have made us tea.” She indicated the front parlor. “If you’ll sit down?”
“Of course, madam. I believe we shall remove our shoes.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“It is but a moment.” And what do you know, Ruhn was already working on the laces on his boots. “I hate to track in.”
“I appreciate that,” Minnie said. And as Saxton bowed again, the female smiled some more. “You have such beautiful manners. You remind me of my Rhysland, may he be blessed in the Fade.”
“May he be blessed, yes.”
“Do sit down in here while I bring in refreshments.”
Minnie left and Saxton chose a seat on the sofa by the fire. Dutch tiles in blue and white had been set around the hearth, and there was a woven blue and white rug lain before the old brass fender. The rest of the room was done in Victorian red and navy.
Glancing over his shoulder, he looked out the window upon the snowy landscape. What a perfect place to read a book, he thought—and then he realized that he was alone in making himself comfortable. Ruhn was still standing over by the door, the male’s hands crossed before him, his head tilted down, his body at rest as if he were prepared to be thus for however long they were in the house.
“Ruhn? Come and sit with me.”
Ruhn shook his head and didn’t look up. “I would prefer to wait here by the door.”
“I believe it would be more awkward if you did not sit with us.”
The male seemed to burrow into his peacoat even though the cold was well vanquished by the fire’s heat, and Saxton had the sense Ruhn was trying to seem smaller. And sure enough, he sat down at the other end of the sofa slowly as if he didn’t want his full weight on the furniture.