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A Wind of Change(A Shade of Vampire,Book 17)(7) by Bella Forrest

At the entrance to our towering apartment block, two hooded men smoked by the doorway. I fixed my eyes on the ground and strode through the door. I walked to the far corner of the entry area where the mailboxes were stacked. Pulling the key from my bag’s zip pocket, I opened our box. There was only one letter inside. A thin brown envelope addressed to Nadia Haik.

It was still strange to see my mother being addressed by her maiden name, even though it had been more than two years now since the divorce. I slipped the letter into my bag, locked the box and hurried past the elevator toward the stairs. I never used the elevator anymore, not since it had broken down on me six months ago and I’d been trapped in it alone for two hours before the engineer came.

I climbed up staircase after staircase until I reached the seventh floor. Panting, I leaned against the wall to catch my breath. The smell of delicious cooking wafted into my nostrils. It made me realize how hungry I was.

I ran the rest of the distance to the door of our two-bedroom apartment and opened it with my key.

“River?” My mother’s voice drifted through from the kitchen as I shut the door behind me.

“Hello, Mom,” I called back, untying my shoes.

She appeared in the hallway wearing an apron, her thick brown hair tied up in a bun. She placed her hands on her waist, her turquoise eyes wide.

“What happened? I tried to call you.”

“Sorry. My phone battery died.” I finished taking off my shoes and stood up straight. At five-seven, I was two inches taller than my mother.

“How come you’re almost an hour late?”

“I got delayed on the bus journey home.” I reached into my bag for her letter and handed it to her. She took it from me and eyed it briefly before looking back at me. I could see the question behind her eyes, but I knew she’d wait until my sisters had gone to bed.

“You must be starving.” She took my hand and led me into the kitchen. I dumped my bag on the floor. My three siblings were still seated at the table in the center of the small room.

“Why are you so late, River?” Lalia, my six-year-old sister, scolded through a mouthful of hummus.

I heaved a sigh and sat down at the table. “The buses weren’t behaving themselves.”

My ten-year-old sister Dafne peered at me through her round purple spectacles. “Where did you go?”

“You know… the restaurant.”

Dafne, Lalia and I looked more like our mother than our father—more Lebanese than Italian. We shared her eye color, her rich brown hair and light tan skin. My nineteen-year-old brother sitting opposite me resembled our father uncannily with his black hair, brown eyes and whiter skin tone.

“Hello, Jamil,” I said, giving him a smile.

He gave me a lopsided half-smile and met my gaze briefly before mumbling inaudibly to himself and looking down at the table. I could see that my mother had been feeding him when I’d arrived back—he had half a plate of stuffed eggplant and falafel still in front of him.

My mother approached with my plate and set it down in front of me. My mouth watering, I dug right in. There was nothing in the world like my mom’s cooking. She resumed her seat next to Jamil, picked up his fork and continued feeding him.

“How’s the makdous?” she asked. “I think I added too little salt.”

“No, it’s perfect,” I said. “So what have you guys been up to today?”

“We’ve just been hanging around the apartment… Dafne’s been getting a headstart on her history homework—”

“Hey, River, you know my class is studying the Ancient Egyptians next year?” Dafne interrupted. “Finally!”

I chuckled. Our grandfather on my mother’s side being an Egyptologist, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Dafne knew more about Egyptian history than her history teacher.

“And Lalia painted a picture,” my mother continued.

“Of us!” Lalia piped up. Still clutching a piece of falafel in one hand, she slid off her seat and ran out of the kitchen. She returned with a watercolor painting. It was typical Lalia-style—brave, bold colors and half a dozen giant flowers floating around our stick figures for no discernible reason. This wasn’t the first family portrait Lalia had painted. We had a whole pile of them stacked beneath her bed. But something about this one made me stop chewing.

Our father was missing. This was the first painting I’d seen of hers where she’d excluded him.

Although it made me ache inside, I supposed it was a good thing. Perhaps she was letting go. I caught my mother’s eye. From the look of melancholy on her face, I could tell that she was thinking the same thing.

“It’s beautiful, Laly,” I said, kissing her chubby cheek.

She grinned proudly before setting the picture down on the kitchen counter and resuming her seat between Dafne and my mother.

“We also made baklava,” my mother said.

“Can I have some?” Lalia said, stuffing the last forkful of her main course into her mouth.

My mother rolled her eyes. “You already sneaked five pieces before dinner, little rascal.”

“Just one… please?” Lalia fluttered her eyelashes.

“I’ll give you half a piece,” my mother muttered, standing up and opening the fridge door.

Lalia pulled her grumpy face.

“Baklava will start coming out of your ears soon if you’re not careful,” Dafne said, casting Lalia a sideways glance.