Stargazer Page 30

“I’m glad things are going better for you in the romance department.” Raquel turned around at last, and there was even a small, hesitant smile on her face. “Not like it couldn’t go better than last time, huh?”

She’d never liked Lucas, and hearing her put him down the same way Mrs. Bethany had was the last straw. “It’s none of your business,” I snapped. “You don’t get to ignore me for days and then offer opinions about my love life. You only act like my friend when you’re in the mood, and I’m sick of it.”

“Excuse me for living.” Raquel threw her magazine down and stalked out of the room. I couldn’t imagine where she thought she was going in her T-shirt and boxer shorts, and I pretended that I didn’t care.

Besides, I didn’t have time to worry about it. I had to bring my new

“boyfriend” to dinner at my parents’.

“So are you two going to the Autumn Ball again this year?” Mom said as she spooned a hefty dollop of mashed potatoes onto my plate.

Balthazar and I shared glances. We hadn’t even thought of the Autumn Ball yet, but Mom’s question made sense. “Absolutely,” he said quickly. “I hadn’t realized it was coming up so soon.”

“Time sneaks up on you.” Dad shook his head ruefully before drinking blood from his glass. “Seems like the older you get, the faster it goes.”

“Tell me about it,” Balthazar said. Moments like that reminded me that, even though he looked about eighteen or nineteen, he was actually more than three hundred years old, a vampire as experienced and powerful as my parents.

Of course, I already knew I was the odd one out at the table. It’s hard not to know that, when everybody else is drinking blood and you’re the only one with turkey and potatoes on a plate.

“We’ll need to hurry up and choose a dress, if I’m going to alter it for you.” Mom beamed at me like I’d brought home a winning lottery ticket instead of a guy.

“Definitely,” I said. “I’d like that.”

She squeezed my shoulder, still excited for me, and again I felt guilty. I missed the days when I had been able to tell my parents everything.

The rest of the dinner was marginally less awkward, and afterward, Dad put Dinah Washington on the stereo—one of my favorite singers. It was like he and my mother both were doing everything they could to ensure that I was having a great time. When I said I wanted to walk Balthazar downstairs, they waved us off almost eagerly.

As we headed down the stone steps, I said, “By next week, they’ll have baked and frosted our wedding cake.”

“They just want you to be happy.”

I could hear in Balthazar’s voice how badly he still wanted to be the one to make me happy. “Balthazar—I know it’s fun, us hanging out together—and you’re great, but it’s not like you and I are—” Awkward, I turned it around on him. “What would you ever see in somebody my age?”

“I’m not so different from you. I know I ought to be, but I’m not.” He studied me curiously. “Haven’t you realized that all the students here act like teenagers? Even the ones older than I am?”

“Well, yeah. I thought that was just—being insecure. Not fitting into the world.”

“That’s part of it. But maturity isn’t a purely emotional thing, Bianca.

It’s physical, too. Those of us who died young—we’ll never wholly be adults. No matter how many centuries of experience we gain, no matter what we live through. We can’t change.” Balthazar seemed distracted, almost mournful, but then he straightened and gave me a friendly smile.

“But don’t worry. About you and me, I mean. I’m not confused.”

“Good,” I said, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.

When I got back to my room, it was fairly late, but Raquel wasn’t there. Apparently she’d found a really good place to hide. I put on my pajamas and took advantage of the privacy by enjoying a full thermos of blood before bedtime. I’d already had my fill at my parents’ house, but I was tired of waking up hungry at 3 A.M. At least I’d sleep through the night this once, I thought.

I didn’t, but for an entirely different reason. A couple hours after bedtime, I awoke at the touch of a hand on my shoulder and Raquel whispering, “Bianca?”

“Hmmm?” I rolled over and peered up through the darkness at Raquel. At first I was so sleepy that I didn’t remember I was mad at her.

“What’s going on?”

“We have to talk.”

“Oh. Okay.” I remembered being angry then, but it didn’t seem to matter. Raquel’s face was pale, and her eyes held the same intangible fear that I remembered from last year, when Erich had been stalking her.

I sat up and brushed my hair from my face. “What’s up with you? Why did you freak out so badly when I asked you about ghosts?”

“First you have to tell me the truth.” Raquel breathed in so sharply that her nostrils flared. “Did you see a ghost in here?”

“Not in our room. But I saw something upstairs—like, at the top of the tower—I think it was a ghost.” I couldn’t tell her that I was sure without letting on how I was so sure, which I thought was a bad idea.

Raquel was so terrified by ghosts that I didn’t think she’d like the revelation that she was also surrounded by vampires.

To my surprise, Raquel seemed relieved. “It wasn’t in here, though?

It didn’t come anywhere near me?”

“No. Nowhere close.”

“What did it look like?”

I thought that if I described the whole thing, I would just scare Raquel again. So I kept it simple. “It was a man. Middle-aged, I guess. His hair and beard were long and dark, like you see in old paintings. I got the impression he was from a really long time ago. And I know I didn’t imagine it. It was real.”

“You’re sure he wasn’t old. Definitely not an old guy, sort of bent over?” When I nodded, she put her fist to her mouth and bit down on her knuckle. I realized that Raquel was trying not to cry.

“What is this about?” At first she didn’t say anything; maybe she couldn’t. “Raquel, it sounds like you know more about ghosts than you’re telling me.”

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