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“Nooooooooooo!” Screaming the word, Amy and Dan moved as one.

Time slowed down, which, Dan knew from experience, often happened when you were in midair. By the time they leaped onto the hood of Fiske’s car (oops, dents), and Dan had ripped off a windshield wiper to use as a weapon (probably not the best idea, but hey, he was improvising), Scarey Harley Dude had turned around.

He strode off in his motorcycle boots, moving swiftly to his bike without seeming to hurry. His helmet back on, sunglasses adjusted, he roared off straight into the road, weaving through the thick traffic like smoke.

Amy’s face was squashed against the windshield. Dan held the wiper aloft like a club.

And Evan Tolliver stood on the sidewalk, blinking at them.

Dan waved the windshield wiper at him. “Hey, bro. We didn’t want to miss our ride.”

“Right,” Evan said. With a faint, puzzled smile, he turned around and walked back into the coffee bar.

“Are you two all right?” Fiske asked.

In answer, Amy just banged her head against the windshield softly.

“What did he want?” Dan croaked.

“He asked if I was going to be very long,” Fiske said. “He wanted a latte. I think you guys freaked him out.”

 Yeah, I’ve changed, Dan thought as he handed the windshield wiper to Fiske. Seeing the potential for disaster in every random encounter? Check.

Amy had done everything the way she always did. Laid out her source materials. Sharpened her pencils. Cracked open a brand-new pack of index cards. Gave Saladin a pat as he blinked at her and curled up on the edge of her bed. She was ready to start her paper.

If only she could stop thinking about Evan Tolliver’s face when she raced across the sidewalk, hurtled over Fiske’s fender, and ended up with a face full of windshield.

High school humiliation? She lived for it.

Just when she’d managed to have a normal conversation with Evan! He’d actually come outside, just to talk to her! Sure, it was about an assignment, but Amy hadn’t thought that Evan even realized she was a carbon life form. He even told her he liked her sweater! He said it matched her eyes. That meant that he’d actually noticed her eyes, didn’t it?

Then she’d completely wrecked it by actually listening to her little brother and almost attacking some motorcycle guy who just wanted a cup of coffee.

When Evan went back into the coffee bar, what had he told the others? Would Amy have a new school nickname tomorrow? Hey, Crash Helmet! Can I borrow your notes, Face Plant?

Amy closed her eyes and dropped her face in her hands. Her life was over.

Down on the first floor, all was quiet. Usually in the late afternoon Fiske would work on renovating and restoring the Cahill mansion. He had set up a desk in the library, where he had drawings of every room. They’d spent evenings trying to remember every detail of the house that Amy and Dan had loved.

 No, the armchair wasn’t blue. It was sort of bluish lilacish. Grace said it reminded her of the hydrangeas on Nantucket.

 Yes, she hung all her keys on those old brass hooks in the mudroom — she’d bought them in a flea market in Paris.

Fiske took notes and wrote tiny instructions on all the drawings. They wanted to re-create the house exactly as it was when Grace was alive. They would track down antiques, they would replace the stained glass windows in the turret. The deep window seats, the Chinese rug in the study, the scarred wooden table in the kitchen — they would match them as closely as they could. They would bring back as much of Grace as they could. It would cost a fortune, but they had one to spend.

It was funny how the effort to re-create the house brought the three of them together. It was easier to tell stories that were about a favorite chair, or a painting, than to talk about emotions. It was like Grace was bringing them together. They were almost a family. But … not quite.

Fiske was a hard guy to get to know. It had been weird, in the beginning, to live with a stranger.

Amy knew it had been difficult for him to take on two children. He wasn’t used to dealing with things like parent-teacher conferences, slumber parties, buying a Christmas tree. They were lucky they had Nellie and the Gomez family to help. Nellie picked up the slack — she took them shopping if they needed school clothes or notebooks or athletic equipment. She kept track of their schedules and decided on limits of cell phone use and computer controls. Things were working the way they should, if you didn’t count that there was a big hole where somebody used to be.

 I miss Grace so much, Amy thought. She just wanted to talk to her, tell her that things were basically okay.

Amy raised her head. What was that noise? They usually didn’t hear any road noise from the guest house. It was situated down a dirt lane behind the main house, far back from the road. Amy crossed to the window. Shadows were blue smudges on the snow, and the sun was already low in the sky. Nothing was stirring. She must have imagined it.

Then she noticed Nellie’s yellow Jeep parked at a crazy angle by the back door, as if Nellie had been in a huge hurry.

But it hadn’t sounded like the Jeep.

Then she heard voices. Raised voices.

Were Nellie and Fiske arguing?

Amy rose from her desk and tiptoed to the head of the stairs in her thick wool socks.

“... too soon!” Nellie said.

Dan came out of his room and saw her on the landing. He raised his eyebrows.

“They’re arguing,” she whispered.

“I can’t hear anything,” he said.

She leaned forward and took the buds out of his ears.

“Are you sure they’re ready for this?” Nellie’s voice was suddenly clear. “We said they needed time….”

That did it. Amy didn’t even have to say a word to Dan. They moved together, taking the stairs quickly. There was no way they were going to be left out of this conversation.

They weren’t just kids — they were Madrigals. Elite Cahills who had been around the world, faced everything thrown at them. They wouldn’t be left out.

“Ready for what?” Amy and Dan both asked at the same time, bursting into the library.

Nellie and Fiske stood near his drawing table by the fireplace. Nellie’s fists rested on her hips in the attitude that meant she was ready to fight. Fiske stood tall and pale, dressed in his usual black sweater and black jeans. He turned, startled, when he saw them. For just a flash, Amy saw sadness in his gaze when it rested on them, and her fear began to coil inside her.

“Hey, kiddos,” Nellie said softly. “Something’s up.”

Amy tried to swallow. “What?”

“We wanted to wait as long as we could,” Fiske said.

“We wanted you to feel safe, for as long as you could,” Nellie added.

Which meant, Amy realized, that they weren’t safe. She lifted her chin. “You’d better tell us, then.”

“They’re Madrigals. It’s time they knew.”

The voice came from behind them.

Amy turned. They’d been so focused on Nellie and Fiske that they hadn’t noticed the guy in the corner. Was it because he was in shadow, or because he was so still?

“Scary Harley Dude!” Dan breathed.

Now that he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses, Amy could see his eyes, light gray and piercing.

“Amy and Dan, meet Erasmus,” Fiske said.

“You said he just wanted a latte,” Amy said with a quick glance at Fiske.

“I just needed to get a message to Fiske,” Erasmus said. “He’s hard to get hold of. Almost like he doesn’t want to be contacted.”

“I can’t imagine what gives you that idea,” Fiske said.

“I had to follow him and drop a secure cell phone in his lap.”

So that was what he’d been reaching for as they raced toward the car, Amy realized. A cell phone. Not a weapon.

Fiske cleared his throat again. “You might have guessed that Erasmus is a fellow Madrigal.”

“Tell them,” Erasmus said. He crossed to stand by Nellie. This served to make Fiske seem like he was on a stage, pressured to speak.

Fiske cleared his throat. “Ah … where to start?”

“From the beginning,” Nellie said. “With Madeleine.”

Nervously, Fiske bent to his drawing table and scooped some pencil shavings into his palm. He emptied them into the pocket of his jeans. Fiske did things like that all the time. He was a funny mixture of scatterbrained and incredibly focused.

“Madeleine inherited something from her mother,” he said. “When Gideon died, he had passed a ring to Olivia. She guarded it with her life. Madrigals have protected it ever since. Generation after generation.”

“Why? Is it so valuable?” Amy asked.

“It’s priceless,” Fiske said. “We know it was made in the ancient world. But that’s not why we protect it. It has a far greater value — we just don’t know what it is.”

“Grace had the ring,” Amy guessed.

“Grace was the last Madrigal to take possession of the ring,” Fiske agreed.

“Is it here?” Dan asked.

Fiske shook his head. “It’s in a bank vault.”

“So … what’s the problem?” Amy asked.

Because there definitely was a problem.

“Do you remember when, after you got through the gauntlet, we told you about another family, a group who hated the Cahills?” Fiske asked.

“This is not going to be good,” Dan muttered.

“They’re called the Vespers. They’re not blood related, exactly — although at least one of them is descended from Damien Vesper. He was a friend, then a bitter enemy, of Gideon Cahill. We don’t know much about the Vespers today — they’re a secret organization, and they recruit people. Scientists, captains of industry, military operatives, criminals … people who want power and don’t care how they get it.”

“They want the serum — we know that,” Erasmus said. “They also want the ring. They’ve been after it for centuries, ever since they figured out that the Madrigals were hiding it.”

“Do you know who they are?” Amy asked.

Erasmus shook his head. “That’s the problem — we’ve figured out a few possible Vespers, but we don’t have hard evidence, and we have no idea who’s leading them. We just get reports of activity from time to time that let us know they’re still hunting the ring. That activity recently has … stepped up. The ring must be moved.”

“So where is this ring?” Dan asked.

“In Switzerland,” Fiske said. “It’s in a safe-deposit box of a numbered account in a Swiss bank. I have the key to it. If something happens to me, the key would go to Amy.”

“To me?” Amy asked.

“Grace wanted both you and Dan to be there when I opened the box. She didn’t want this day to come so soon,” he said gently, looking at Amy. “But she knew you two were strong enough to handle it.”

Amy’s eyes stung with unshed tears. Every time she heard from Fiske how much they’d meant to Grace, she wanted to break down and blubber like a baby.

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