LOIRE VALLEY, FRANCE NOVEMBER 1565
CHAUNCEY WAS WITH A FARMER’S DAUGHTER ON the grassy banks of the Loire River when the storm rolled in, and having let his gelding wander in the meadow, was left to his own two feet to carry him back to the château. He tore a silver buckle off his shoe, placed it in the girl’s palm, and watched her scurry away, mud slinging on her skirts. Then he tugged on his boots and started for home.
Rain sheeted down on the darkening countryside surrounding the Château de Langeais. Chauncey stepped easily over the sunken graves and humus of the cemetery; even in the thickest fog he could find his way home from here and not fear getting lost. There was no fog tonight, but the darkness and onslaught of rain were deceiving enough.
There was movement along the fringe of Chauncey’s vision, and he snapped his head to the left. At first glance what appeared to be a large angel topping a nearby monument rose to full height. Neither stone nor marble, the boy had arms and legs. His torso was naked, his feet were bare, and peasant trousers hung low on his waist. He hopped down from the monument, the ends of his black hair dripping rain. It slid down his face, which was dark as a Spaniard’s.
Chauncey’s hand crept to the hilt of his sword. “Who goes there?”
The boy’s mouth hinted at a smile.
“Do not play games with the Duc de Langeais,” Chauncey warned. “I asked for your name. Give it. ”
“Duc?” The boy leaned against a twisted willow tree. “Or bastard?”
Chauncey unsheathed his sword. “Take it back! My father was the Duc de Langeais. I’m the Duc de Langeais now,” he added clumsily, and cursed himself for it.
The boy gave a lazy shake of his head. “Your father wasn’t the old duc. ”
Chauncey seethed at the outrageous insult. “And your father?” he demanded, extending the sword. He didn’t yet know all his vassals, but he was learning. He would brand the family name of this boy to memory. “I’ll ask once more,” he said in a low voice, wiping a hand down his face to clear away the rain. “Who are you?”
The boy walked up and pushed the blade aside. He suddenly looked older than Chauncey had presumed, maybe even a year or two older than Chauncey. “One of the Devil’s brood,” he answered.
Chauncey felt a clench of fear in his stomach. “You’re a raving lunatic,” he said through his teeth. “Get out of my way. ”
The ground beneath Chauncey tilted. Bursts of gold and red popped behind his eyes. Hunched with his fingernails grinding into his thighs, he looked up at the boy, blinking and gasping, trying to make sense of what was happening. His mind reeled like it was no longer his to command.
The boy crouched to level their eyes. “Listen carefully. I need something from you. I won’t leave until I have it. Do you understand?”
Gritting his teeth, Chauncey shook his head to express his disbelief—his defiance. He tried to spit at the boy, but it trickled down his chin, his tongue refusing to obey him.
The boy clasped his hands around Chauncey’s; their heat scorched him and he cried out.
“I need your oath of fealty,” the boy said. “Bend on one knee and swear it. ”
Chauncey commanded his throat to laugh harshly, but his throat constricted and he choked on the sound. His right knee buckled as if kicked from behind, though no one was there, and he stumbled forward into the mud. He bent sideways and retched.
“Swear it,” the boy repeated.
Heat flushed Chauncey’s neck; it took all his energy to curl his hands into two weak fists. He laughed at himself, but there was no humor. He had no idea how, but the boy was inflicting the nausea and weakness inside him. It would not lift until he took the oath. He would say what he had to, but he swore in his heart he would destroy the boy for this humiliation.
“Lord, I become your man,” Chauncey said venomously.
The boy raised Chauncey to his feet. “Meet me here at the start of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan.
During the two weeks between new and full moons, I’ll need your service. ”
“A … fortnight? ” Chauncey’s whole frame trembled under the weight of his rage. “I am the Duc de Langeais! ”
“You are a Nephil,” the boy said on a sliver of a smile.
Chauncey had a profane retort on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it. His next words were spoken with icy venom. “What did you say?”
“You belong to the biblical race of Nephilim. Your real father was an angel who fell from heaven.
You’re half mortal. ” The boy’s dark eyes lifted, meeting Chauncey’s. “Half fallen angel. ”
Chauncey’s tutor’s voice drifted up from the recesses of his mind, reading passages from the Bible, telling of a deviant race created when angels cast from heaven mated with mortal women. A fearsome and powerful race. A chill that wasn’t entirely revulsion crept through Chauncey. “Who are you?”
The boy turned, walking away, and although Chauncey wanted to go after him, he couldn’t command his legs to hold his weight. Kneeling there, blinking up through the rain, he saw two thick scars on the back of the boy’s naked torso. They narrowed to form an upsidedown V.
“Are you—fallen?” he called out. “Your wings have been stripped, haven’t they?”
The boy—angel—whoever he was did not turn back. Chauncey did not need the confirmation.
“This service I’m to provide,” he shouted. “I demand to know what it is!”
The air resonated with the boy’s low laughter.
COLDWATER, MAINE PRESENT DAY
I WALKED INTO BIOLOGY AND MY JAW FELL OPEN. Mysteriously adhered to the chalkboard was a Barbie doll, with Ken at her side. They’d been forced to link arms and were naked except for artificial leaves placed in a few choice locations. Scribbled above their heads in thick pink chalk was the invitation:
WELCOME TO HUMAN REPRODUCTION (SEX)
At my side Vee Sky said, “This is exactly why the school outlaws camera phones. Pictures of this in the eZine would be all the evidence I’d need to get the board of education to ax biology. And then we’d have this hour to do something productive—like receive oneonone tutoring from cute upperclass guys. ”
“Why, Vee,” I said, “I could’ve sworn you’ve been looking forward to this unit all semester. ”
Vee lowered her lashes and smiled wickedly. “This class isn’t going to teach me anything I don’t already know. ”
“Vee? As in virgin?”
“Not so loud. ” She winked just as the bell rang, sending us both to our seats, which were side by side at our shared table.
Coach McConaughy grabbed the whistle swinging from a chain around his neck and blew it. “Seats, team!” Coach considered teaching tenthgrade biology a side assignment to his job as varsity basketball coach, and we all knew it.
“It may not have occurred to you kids that sex is more than a fifteenminute trip to the backseat of a car.
It’s science. And what is science?”
“Boring,” some kid in the back of the room called out.
“The only class I’m failing,” said another.
Coach’s eyes tracked down the front row, stopping at me. “Nora?”
“The study of something,” I said.
He walked over and jabbed his index finger on the table in front of me. “What else?”
“Knowledge gained through experimentation and observation. ” Lovely. I sounded like I was auditioning for the audiobook of our text.
“In your own words. ”
I touched the tip of my tongue to my upper lip and tried for a synonym. “Science is an investigation. ” It soun
ded like a question.
“Science is an investigation,” Coach said, sanding his hands together. “Science requires us to transform into spies. ”
Put that way, science almost sounded fun. But I’d been in Coach’s class long enough not to get my hopes up.
“Good sleuthing takes practice,” he continued.
“So does sex,” came another backoftheroom comment. We all bit back laughter while Coach pointed a warning finger at the offender.
“That won’t be part of tonight’s homework. ” Coach turned his attention back to me. “Nora, you’ve been sitting beside Vee since the beginning of the year. ” I nodded but had a bad feeling about where this was going. “Both of you are on the school eZine together. ” Again I nodded. “I bet you know quite a bit about each other. ”
Vee kicked my leg under our table. I knew what she was thinking. That he had no idea how much we knew about each other. And I don’t just mean the secrets we entomb in our diaries. Vee is my untwin.
She’s greeneyed, minky blond, and a few pounds over curvy. I’m a smokyeyed brunette with volumes of curly hair that holds its own against even the best flatiron. And I’m all legs, like a bar stool. But there is an invisible thread that ties us together; both of us swear that tie began long before birth. Both of us swear it will continue to hold for the rest of our lives.
Coach looked out at the class. “In fact, I’ll bet each of you knows the person sitting beside you well enough. You picked the seats you did for a reason, right? Familiarity. Too bad the best sleuths avoid familiarity. It dulls the investigative instinct. Which is why, today, we’re creating a new seating chart. ”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Vee beat me to it. “What the crap? It’s April. As in, it’s almost the end of the year. You can’t pull this kind of stuff now. ”
Coach hinted at a smile. “I can pull this stuff clear up to the last day of the semester. And if you fail my class, you’ll be right back here next year, where I’ll be pulling this kind of stuff all over again. ”
Vee scowled at him. She is famous for that scowl. It’s a look that does everything but audibly hiss.
Apparently immune to it, Coach brought his whistle to his lips, and we got the idea.
“Every partner sitting on the lefthand side of the table—that’s your left—move up one seat. Those in the front row—yes, including you, Vee—move to the back. ”
Vee shoved her notebook inside her backpack and ripped the zipper shut. I bit my lip and waved a small farewell. Then I turned slightly, checking out the room behind me. I knew the names of all my classmates … except one. The transfer. Coach never called on him, and he seemed to prefer it that way.
He sat slouched one table back, cool black eyes holding a steady gaze forward. Just like always. I didn’t for one moment believe he just sat there, day after day, staring into space. He was thinking something, but instinct told me I probably didn’t want to know what.
He set his bio text down on the table and slid into Vee’s old chair.
I smiled. “Hi. I’m Nora. ”
His black eyes sliced into me, and the corners of his mouth tilted up. My heart fumbled a beat and in that pause, a feeling of gloomy darkness seemed to slide like a shadow over me. It vanished in an instant, but I was still staring at him. His smile wasn’t friendly. It was a smile that spelled trouble. With a promise.