Promise Me - Book 5
At the turn of the 19th century, former aristocrat turned lowly vampire Devlin Dalcon gets by on his supernatural charms until he meets bride-to-be Annabelle. Smitten by Anna's forthrightness, intellect, and bravery, Devlin risks his life to spirit her away to Fontainebleau, France. There Devlin begins his ascent to power in a desperate bid for wealth and social standing for himself and Anna.
Forging alliances with other supernatural leaders, he usurps the vampire Lord of Fontainebleau, amassing many enemies during his brief reign. Within a few years, he and Anna are again forced to flee for their lives to America. Living in hiding, Devlin is determined to amend his ways. But when tragedy strikes, Devlin's dark side, never fully extinguished, emerges rampant, securing him the bloody throne of America even as his malevolence and loneliness consumes him.
My name is Devlin Dalcon, pronounced with the soft French “c,” thank you. If you’re a vampire, that name probably sends delicious tendrils of terror through your blood. Alas, if you’re human, you may not have heard of me. Unless, of course, I murdered or turned one of your relatives, which is a very good possibility.
I’m going to pretend you’ve heard of me in any case, because I want to. Given that, you would’ve heard a lot of conflicting information; almost certainly of my cruelty and my ruthlessness in ruling The States—as I call them—for the past hundred and eighty years, and my handsomeness: my spun-gold hair, and my eyes, which have been likened to melting gold by more than one of my lovers. Maybe you’ve even heard of my voice, that it’s sweeter than an angel’s, and more seductive than sin, or perhaps my unequaled proficiency as a lover, which is almost as legendary now as my talent for torture. If you are a woman, you might well have experienced the former for yourself.
What you most likely have not heard was how I ascended my throne and first made my way to these shores from my native soil. The how was simple enough. It is the reasons why I must confess in these pages. Bear with me, if I slip and use older words, though I will do my best to adhere to a more modern style of speech for the sake of clarity. Much has changed in my long years; some welcomed, others mourned, not the least of them language. It’s important you grasp and comprehend fully all that happened, for after all, what good is a confession that is not understood?
My brother Danial was there for some of the worst times. I’m sure he will dispute the circumstances of his betrayal. He always has his own version of things. This is the real account, all of it, which until now has been kept locked deep inside my black heart. Even he will agree that it all began when I fell in love.
Love is a strange beast in how it possesses us. I surely did not ever expect it to possess me, especially two hundred years after I became vampire.
* * * *
The year was 1814 or so, if I’m remembering right. The Napoleonic Wars were still going strong, and much of France either was occupied or would be shortly. The French Revolution had started and things were falling apart. Bonaparte seemed hell-bent on redesigning the known world. From what I had seen so far of his efforts, he was sure of success.
I was not wealthy then, though I’d been vampire for many years. Some of that was my fault, and some of that was bad luck that followed me wherever I traveled. I had attempted a few things to make money over the years. Nothing I tried—be it gambling, speculation, land ventures, or even hard labor—helped me to regain the kind of lifestyle I’d had when I was mortal.
Some of it was luck, as I said. Some of it was my repugnance at taking orders from those I still considered to be my inferiors. Most of it was that I didn’t want to succeed bad enough to strive for it. But it wasn’t laziness. It was depression. I was enveloped in the cold fog of knowing I was the only one of my kind still in existence.
My brother Danial had also become a vampire. He was dead, killed by his wife. The story I’d been told was that he’d returned a monster, she’d touched him with a cross, and he had instantly burst into flame. I’d known that to be bullshit as soon as I heard it, as crosses hadn’t done anything to me when I’d touched them. It was far more likely that he’d been driven into the light of day and burned to death from sunlight exposure. That was a real danger. It also fit with the rumors, if you cut off the edges of the tale.
Most of my mortal family was also departed, though not by violence. My father, my mother, my other younger sisters and legitimate brothers were dead some two centuries past. Any descendants of theirs had most certainly been wiped out in the upper class cleansing that took place after the peasants rose to power in the 1790’s.
I don’t count my older brother’s children who survived and fled the country years back, when the first wars broke out. My father had also sired other bastards, with all the lovers he had. I’d seen some descendants of my line with the key features of my father’s face and my own over the years. Yet I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me. I’d see them happy with their children and wives, and be insanely jealous, even though I didn’t know them. I’d hunger to rip their throats out with my fangs, settling instead for glowering as I stalked away. Killing a descendant of my family seemed like infanticide to me somehow, and I couldn’t do it.
Some things were a bit easier then. No one noticed that I didn’t age, or drink, save water when I had to. I traveled a good deal, supporting myself by singing ballads for lords and ladies. When they were hard to find, I made do with whomever would give me shelter, and money for clothing. Blood I could find on my own. I’m not ashamed to say that I lived a good deal on animal blood back then, any kind of animal. The places I traveled were often rural and strangers were not welcomed as a rule, even entertainers. There was no draining the village barmaid as she walked home after closing back then; that’s all Hollywood bullshit. If a villager was attacked, God forbid there was any stranger around, as they would be hanged before an hour was out, or stoned to death by a vengeful mob. If the “death” meted out didn’t take, the villagers would notice, and usually burn the accused as a witch. Bearing that in mind, I’ll grant that some things were also harder back then.
I did have trouble adjusting to my new vampire life, and I don’t mean just the liquid diet. As I said, I had trouble taking orders. I’d been trained from birth to rule men, to study strategy and tactics, and to learn the finer arts, like reading and writing. Having boorish unlearned men order me to sing simple bawdy songs over and over, wasting my voice on ill-thought offal, grated on me. I did what I could not to dwell on that.
As should be apparent to anyone who knows anything about me, I very much desired the company of the opposite sex. Luckily, I was handsome, and rugged-looking, the ideal of a man. It follows I was not often lonely for female company, even on the nights I spent sleeping in the lofts of barns, and in fields beneath the shells of burned-out homes. My training in seduction from my father served me just as well as it always had, and it was almost always easy to seduce a young lady, a milkmaid, or whatever female was nearby.
I didn’t think much of it, to tell the truth. I knew that once the night or the week was over, that was it, because I‘d need to move on. I was always honest with the women who came to me about that. Again, times were different then, when people were very conscious of class. The ladies I bedded were there to enjoy my caresses, nothing more. I had no fortune and no title, so I wasn’t even in the running for anything more than a dalliance. As for the milkmaids, they were much the same. They were not going to be linked with a man who had no means of supporting them save his song, even if I was handsome.
That didn’t bother me. All that mattered was that I felt momentary pleasure in the sex act, no matter which one it was, or what manner of female it was with. It was my one source of pleasure left, save blood, and I enjoyed it with abandon as often as possible. For the most part, I was not penalized for my amorous adventures. No issue ever came of them with me being sterile, and no woman was diseased, as I was unable to pass anything to anyone. Nor could I receive anything from my partners. This was good, as some of those women I bedded who proclaimed they were pure were anything but. But I’m getting sidetracked.
The year was 1814, as I said. I appeared then just as I do now; about thirty-five, robustly fit, with golden-colored eyes, gleaming blond hair, and a stubbled face. It was some night in early spring. I was sitting near a campfire with a band of gypsies, telling the ballad of Robin Hood. A dark woman of theirs was giving me appreciative eyes. I was thinking of ending early to take full advantage of that, when one of the men said that he’d like to talk to me alone.
I gave him a look to let him know if he meant me harm or was seeking a bedmate, either would get him a knife in his heart. Due to my lifestyle of traveling mostly on foot—and laboring hard, when there were no singing jobs available—my body was lean and hard with muscle, much as it was when I faced other enemies centuries later. In short, I was easily stronger than a mortal man.
He took me aside, into some trees.
“Yes?” I asked.
“I have a proposition for you.”
I hoped this man wasn’t that girl’s kin. I had no money to pay for favors, and no inclination for having to, even if I’d had the money. “Yes?”
“There is a Lord’s castle a day’s journey away south, near Montereau, in Seine-et-Marne. They are planning a large days-long banquet to celebrate a wedding in a few days. They will surely hire you, if you should go there.”
Good plan. It wouldn’t be a free one. “What do you want?”
“Access to the castle, as soon as it gets dark. We have knowledge of a large treasure assembled there, as the lord’s daughter is being married off. It’s said she is not pretty, as her sisters are—”
I couldn’t care less. “Why should I help you? What is in this for me?”
“You may have a share of anything we are able to steal, and the favors of my daughter, for as long as you want them. I’ve noticed you watching her.”
I faced him. “I could have that without risking my life, and you know it.”
He stood his ground. “Winter is not over, Bard, not in these lands. If you are smart, you’d make plans to be in an encampment, a warm woman at your side, with enough food and wine to last until the weather turns warmer in another month or two.”
He had a point. I had been frozen more often than I cared to remember, and I disliked the feeling. It was as if I was trapped in my body, unable to talk or move, and yet I could hear everything around me. Worst, I was completely helpless until I thawed, another thing I detested.
“Say I agreed. I’d have to escape with you that night, or face hanging.”
“We will not enter into the city with you. We will camp on the outskirts, and wait for you to send word that the treasure is indeed there.”
“What if it’s not?”
“Then wait until it is. We have enough food to last—”
“And if it never arrives? This could all be a lie.”
“Then what are you out?”
True. “I agree, then.” I looked past him back to the fire. “Send your daughter to me.”
He nodded, and called for her. I think her name was Maris, but I can’t remember for sure. She came over, and he left us.
I led her into the forest, and pressed her against the nearest tree, lifting her skirts. She was already kissing me with abandon, which showed me more than anything else that she was likely already skilled in intercourse. Yet I did have something to show her that would likely feel new, given my size. She gasped when I drove into her, and then clutched me to her, moaning softly in pleasure. I grinned, kissing up her neck hungrily, as I stroked her. Soon, she was crying out her orgasm softly. My cry a moment later was not soft at all.
I withdrew from her with a last kiss, and adjusted my clothes, as she adjusted hers.
“Will you stay with us tonight?” she whispered quietly. “Please?”
I was gratified at her enthusiasm for me, but I had things to do. “No, my dear. I need to start for the castle tonight, because if another bard is hired, my part in the plan will be taken by someone else. And I would have your favors for more than a night.” That last wasn’t necessary, but I knew women well, and they were much more easily dissuaded from clinging if they thought that you didn’t want to leave them.
She embraced me, giving me a last kiss. “As you will. But don’t think my favors are free.”
Did she expect payment now? “I never implied they were, Maris.”
“I know that vile gypsy told you that if you did as he asked, you were welcome to me,” she hissed, eyes blazing angrily. “But he’s not my father. And even if he was, no one gives my favors away but me.”
This was already tiresome. “What are your terms?” I said coolly, removing her arms from around me.
“I want to go away with you. I’m not a gypsy; I’m just a stolen child, a slave. But I can be useful to you—”
A human becoming my traveling companion was impossible. However, I wasn’t often given the chance to indulge myself fully with a woman who wouldn’t be missed. Agreeing to take her with me now would ensure that when I parted from the gypsies I’d have not only a heavier purse but also a full belly.
I kissed her hand. “Your eyes flash so beautifully in your passion, my dear. I must endeavor to stir your ardor often.” I trailed my lips up her throat. “I’m confident I can find other ways to stimulate your enthusiasm, my sweet.”
She drew a long trembling breath. “Will you take me?”
“Of course.” I’ll take all you have to give, sweet child. “But I must go, now.” I turned, and began walking away.
She called after me, “What is your name, Bard?”
“Devlin,” I said, without looking back. “But you can call me Bard, my dear. Everyone else does.”
* * * *
I walked all that night and the next. That gypsy had been lying when he said it was only a day’s journey. But what did I expect? He was probably illiterate, and had never learned what a mile was, much less a Roman foot.
Finding my way wasn’t difficult, even though most nights there was nothing to see but countryside and no real road to follow. Money for candles and lanterns was something else I did not have. Yet that wasn’t a problem, as I could see in the dark as if it were day. Because of my upbringing, I knew astronomy well enough to read the stars, to tell which direction I was going. This was helpful, as soldiers were often on the roads, and it was better to avoid them whenever possible.
My first sight of the structure revealed it to be a large manor house, a type of converted castle complete with an outer fortified wall, battlements, watchtowers and a drawbridge. That was a relief to me. Any lord that could sustain a true castle in these troubled times would likely also have the means to keep a standing army at his disposal. Yet the sheer size of the structure and its good condition meant that whomever ruled there was no fool. I was going to have to be very careful.
I reached the castle gate a little after sundown, afraid if I waited too long, they would not admit me. Most places had a policy of not letting in strangers after nightfall.
I was admitted to the presence of the Lord Marshal, a kind of high chancellor, which was what my father had been. The man was mousy and not regal at all. Sigh, so much had gone downhill in two hundred years.
“We have heard of you, Bard. But we will not hire you.”
“Have you a bard already, my good Master?” This was a time to be obsequious.
“No. But this is a happy occasion. It is said that your songs for the most part are tragedies. We are celebrating, not preparing a feast for the despondent and suicidal.”
I decided before I left to make a meal of him and make it look like an accident. I was willing to take a lot of insults in the name of survival, but never for my voice or choice of music.
“I will sing whatever you wish, Lord. I know of the usual marriage songs, and of the spring songs that are customary for this time of year.”
The lord looked down his nose at me. “Take yourself to the kitchen. The cook will have leftovers from tonight’s meal for you. That is all you will get, until after your performance the first night, when we determine that you are performing to par.”
Now I was definitely going to kill him. “Agreed, lord.”
I took my leave of him, smiling to a group of maids who were gawking at me shyly. They giggled and ran off. I rolled my eyes, letting my nose take me to the kitchen. If I were in luck, there would be some blood there.
I was in luck. A pig had been killed, and the blood saved for some kind of cooking garnish. It seemed odd to me they would choose that as a garnish, but then I’d never paid much attention to what went on in the kitchens. Centuries ago, maids had brought me meals; my mother had never cooked one. She was too busy living the court life, trying to curry favor with my father in a desperate attempt to forget about his many lovers...
I’m getting diverted again. My apologies.
I swiped the pig’s blood, replacing it with a little wine. Drinking it quickly, I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling it renewing me: my hair growing out another inch, my weighty feeling dissipating. My stubble remained unchanged. It was as long as it ever got, this beard of mine that was almost a beard, but not quite.
I wandered into the lower halls, looking for a place to sleep. I found a serving wench there who liked my attributes. I quoted her a few verses, and soon, she was leading me to her room.
I always preferred a bed, if I could procure one. But any place safe from the sun would be adequate.
* * * *
The next morning, the wench rose at dawn. I looked at her groggily, prompting her to assure me I could stay there while she was about her duties.
“You’re welcome to return here after you’re singing tonight,” she added quickly.
Ahh, yes, I was still the rake I’d been when I was mortal. “Thank you.”
She left, and I went back to sleep.
Soon enough, it was night and time for work. I felt with irritation that I’d picked up some lice and fleas from her straw tick bed. Who knew how long it had been since it had been changed? Maybe not since last harvest, more than six months ago. Ugh.
I grimaced, dressed in my outer clothes, and grabbed my underclothes. At the nearest trough in the inner courtyard, I washed them and myself. It was little better than keeping the vermin, but I detested the feeling of anything crawling on me. I would hang my long johns near the heat of the kitchen fire, where they would dry soon enough. Luckily, it never bothered me to be without undergarments.
I was just finishing washing up when I heard a horse neigh. I looked up to see a man coming into the square. His bearing said he was at least a Lord Magistrate. But by his clothing, the quality of his horse, and his many men, I was guessing he was probably a lord.
He was blond like me, his hair a little longer, as was the current style, and his eyes a rich blue color almost like the sky. He was not as handsome as I was, which gratified me as much as it always did.
He shifted his eyes in my direction and I looked away, because to be caught staring at him might be cause for a whipping, especially if he saw the insolent look I was giving him. He dismounted, and walked through the main gate, his guards behind him.
“Good evening, sweet bard.”
I looked over to see my serving wench gazing at me with desire. I returned her lustful glance, even as I mentally rolled my eyes.
* * * *
Later that night, I discovered that the young man was Marcus, betrothed-to-be of the young daughter, and that her name was Annabelle. It was true the first time I saw her I was not impressed. I’d bedded many women over the years, and gotten an appreciation for the female form. Her hair was an ordinary brown color, and her face was not graceful, or striking, as I preferred my women to be. But her body was lush and full, despite she was very young, only twenty. To be fair, in those times that was old to be unmarried. That meant there must be some truth to the gypsy’s story, as her dowry would be a large one, just to make sure the pact was sealed completely. An unmarried daughter was a liability, unless she went to a nunnery, and even then, there was no return on investment, just the relief in knowing that another mouth would not have to be fed, or a body clothed.
I sang that night as if I were ecstatic to be there, standing in piles of discarded food, and spilled wine. I was a success, at least by the cheers and clapping I received. Reminding myself that it was just for a few nights, I graciously accepted the accolades, thinking repeatedly that I’d be on my way soon, away from this place and these disgusting people.
I could not make myself return to the serving wench’s vermin ridden bed. Luck was with me, as I received an invitation from one of the ladies in waiting to join her for the night. She was comely enough, though fairly simple-minded. To add to that, she believed that I would get her with child, despite my attempts to persuade her otherwise, and she drank some herbs that I knew to be sometimes toxic. I let her, hoping she didn’t die during the night. I made love to her with the same false passion I’d sung with downstairs, and before long, she was snoring peacefully beside me.
I was tired enough to sleep, but made myself stay awake. I had to think. I had a plan to prepare.
I’d seen no treasure. The dowry had been mentioned once, but only remarked on in regards to size. That was no help. I sighed, and relaxed near her, telling myself I could do one more night. It was only one more night.
* * * *
As before, I passed the day in the lady’s room. She had been pleased with my performance, and asked me to stay while I was performing, with the express understanding that after the festivities were done, I had to be on my way. I agreed wholeheartedly. It was worth it to sleep in a comfortable bed again, or at least, one that was not lice-ridden.
I spent the next night singing, and began to learn more. Apparently, the bridegroom was early. More irritating, the bulk of the treasure wasn’t even here, it was some five days on the road behind him. To pay the dowry, the bride’s father had called in debts owed to him, and some of his debtors had been slow to pay. That news threw a cramp into my plans.
At least waiting wasn’t a problem, now I had a place to stay. I’d been paid well that second night, enough to buy some newer clothes, and a thin bar of soap. The problem was always the same one in castles and settlements: blood.
I could’ve taken some from my lover, sure. But I was ravenous and would need to drain her, especially after all the demands she’d made of me nightly. For reasons I’ve mentioned previously, I couldn’t do that, or settle for sipping from several people, even if I healed them after. I had to hunt, to bring down game. To do that, I had to get outside the wall at night.
* * * *
Again, Fate was with me. I chanced upon the Lord Magistrate out inspecting his men late the next evening, and marked where he went when he made his rounds. In the course of his inspection, he paused several moments near a back wall, as if checking something. After he continued on, I went to investigate. As I’d hoped, there was indeed a small back door in the castle wall. The problem was a large iron padlock.
The loathsome man likely kept the only key around his neck. Unfortunately for him, I’d long since adapted to handling locked doors. As soon as no one was watching, I opened it with a pick from my pocket and ventured outside. Within an hour, I’d killed a few rabbits and drained them. Strengthened by their blood, I then brought down a deer, and gorged myself.
I lay there for a while, thinking of my next actions. Deciding a few coins were worth the small trouble, I dressed the animals. Carrying them, I made my way back to the castle, and snuck back inside the walls.
I brought the carcasses to the kitchen, and the night cook was pleased, if surprised. She gave me coin for the flesh with no questions, and I gratefully took it.
I was tired by then and eager to rest. It was as I was walking upstairs to the coquette’s bed that I caught the sound of voices.
“I’m afraid,” a young feminine voice said. “I don’t want to do this.”
“You must,” a masculine voice said firmly.
Young lovers, out for her first time. I’d just avoid them.
“Anna, you must. Our fathers wish it. And you’ve known me since you were young.”
“I have, Marcus. I think of you as a brother. But I don’t love you. I don’t want to be your wife.”
This was expected. Most arranged marriages were not met with glee, but sullen acquiescence. Long ago, I’d faced the prospect of my own the same way.
“We’ll have a good life together, Anna.”
“I don’t want a good life,” she said stridently. “I want a great one. I want to see more than the inside of a house, and to do sewing! I want to read!”
This was not expected. I listened harder.
“Anna, you’ll learn to read, if you wish. I’ll teach you. But your place is with me, and to be mother to my children. Don’t you want that?”
“No,” Anna said, nearly inaudibly. “I’m not sure I do. And perhaps there is something wrong with me, that I don’t desire motherhood, the way my sisters did. Their reason for being was to birth children, and to be wives. But I want more than that.”
Interesting. Perhaps I could use this to my advantage.
I waited until Marcus left. Anna was walking through the hallway, when I abruptly moved in front of her. She let out a gasp, and shrank back.
“Sorry, milady,” I said gallantly. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I offer my apologies.”
“Accepted,” she said simply, looking at me with suspicious big brown eyes. “Now please let me pass.”
At least her eyes were pretty. “Would you like me to read to you?” I offered quickly. “I could teach you, if you wish.”
She looked at me with more suspicion. “Why? You do not know me, sir, and no man or woman offers a favor without expecting something in return.”
I looked at her in surprise, and then laughed richly. “So jaded, for one so young! You misunderstand: I don’t want anything, just time with you. It is admirable, that you want to be able to appreciate the written word, when so many women these days do not.”
That was a lie, of course. But in order to get her to trust me, I had to spend time with her. This one was not going to be persuaded by my normal means.
“I should not,” she said, in a tone that said she was thinking about it. “My father would disapprove.”
“I promise I’ll not touch you, not even your hand. Where is the harm in that?” I said cajolingly.
I saw her give in first in her eyes, before she nodded. “Very well.”
She took me to her father’s study, handed me a book of poetry, and then looked at me expectantly.
I’d taught my brother Danial to read. It had been much like this with him, all those years ago. I opened the book, and began.
By the end of that night, we’d mastered a few lines, and she could recognize most letters. She was smart and she wanted badly to learn, both of which speeded her comprehension. I was pleased about that, as it made my teaching easier.
I was not pleased she was perceptive. “You are of noble birth, aren’t you?” she said as she shut her father’s study door behind us.
I didn’t look at her. “I was.”
“And I am not the first you taught to read.”
Now I was melancholy. “No,” I said in an old voice. “My brother was. He’s dead. All my family is dead.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, touching my arm gently. Her hand was warm on my cool flesh, which she noticed at once. She looked at me oddly. “You’re chilled. Where do you sleep?”
Awkward to admit, unless I understated things. “I pay one of the maids to bunk with her. It surpasses sleeping on the floor.” And being burned by sunlight. Castles had no curtains, and it being spring, the tapestries had been taken down.
“Good night, then,” she said, and walked away.
Not bad, for a first night. Of course, when I got to my lover’s bed, she was livid. “Where have you been!” she hissed at me. “I’ve waited for you for hours!”
“Bringing you coin,” I said soothingly, handing her a fifth of what I’d received for the animals. “I thought it the least I could do, for your generosity. I set some snares, and caught a few rabbits.”
She looked at me grumpily, but I kissed her in practiced motion. Before long, she was in a much better mood.
* * * *
A week passed. I met with Anna every night. She mastered the written word almost supernaturally fast. This was partly because we’d only read one book of poetry, and the author of that book tended to use the same words in all of his writings. But on the whole, it was remarkable progress for a woman, even for a smart one. I told her this in more flattering words, and it seemed to please her.
I found myself liking Anna. She was the typical youngest daughter of a nobleman: haughty, but also good, kind, and a little naughty from being ignored most of her life. None of the things she related to me in whispers were very bad. They were the kind of childish exploits that seem large to a young girl and absurd to someone much older. Nevertheless, I was amused to hear her tale of caring for an injured crow, the rumor she’d started about a rival that had caused her not to leave her room for days, and the story of setting the tapestry near the main fireplace alight with a carelessly dropped brand.
I also noticed that she seemed to like me. That was expected, as I listened to her as no one else probably did. Plus, I was very attractive, which was always a help.
Finally, I found out from her what I wanted to know. The treasure was due to arrive the next day in a large caravan. Irritatingly, the real treasure was not in the caravan, but in a purse the lead man was carrying. It was loose jewels, principally sapphires and diamonds. That purse was worth ten times what the rest was worth.
Relieved, I made plans to get word to the gypsies. That would mean sneaking out this very night, and trying to find their headman after feeding. I’d need to go right now, because even leaving immediately I’d be hard pressed to make it back inside the walls before dawn…
“I must go,” I said, getting up. “I must hunt.”
I hadn’t meant to make that slip. A blush suffused my face, shocking me. I hadn’t blushed for a hundred years, easily.
“I hunt for deer, to supplement my income,” I said as convincingly as I could muster. “I have needed new boots for a while now, Milady.”
“I see,” she said, after a moment. “It’s true yours are of an ancient style.”
That was true. I didn’t want to wear the newer style boots, with the short tops and higher heel. I’d always preferred my full leg boots. They’d saved my legs from burning many a time, when I’d woken up to find I’d rolled outside a shelter in my sleep, and the lower part of me was laying in the dawn’s weak light.
“I’ll leave you, Lady. Good night.”
“Here,” she said. “Take this, for your assistance to me.” She handed me a heavy purse of gold cloth.
I knew at once it easily contained enough coin for some new boots, and I was unsure how to react. Part of me told me to refuse it, because I had been bred better than to take money from a woman. The practical side of me told me to take it, because with it, there would be no more lugging deer back though the forest for a few coins.
I took the middle road. “Keep your money, Anna. We are not done with your lessons. In another few days, we will be, and if you are satisfied, you can give me the money then.”
She took her purse back, a measure of respect in her eyes. “Agreed.”
* * * *
A few more days went by, and still the caravan did not arrive. This was due to strong thunderstorms and lightning, which turned most peasants into groveling cowards and all roads into quagmires. The weather turned cold suddenly again, bringing a thick covering of snow and ice that further delayed my plans. So I waited, gritting my fangs. And somewhere in those few days, something changed.
I felt a growing fondness for Anna. When I found myself closing my eyes with my lady in waiting as I loved her, so that I might pretend it was Anna beneath me, I knew something was wrong with me. I’d never cared before who I bedded. For whatever reason, I cared now.
Looking back, it was the beginning of love. I’d never been in love before. I was used to cold women like my mother, and though I’d bedded many women of all classes, I’d never taken the time to get to know any of them. Anna’s passion came through in her lessons, in her strong voice as she read the poetry aloud to me. That made me want her, because in her was something of myself, how I had been long ago. So I decided before I left, I’d do my best to bed her at least once.
A few days later, I pronounced her proficient, even though she was really just passable. But our time together had run out, as the jewels were due to arrive in less than two days, at least if the dry warmer weather held. I needed my remaining nights—what was not already taken up with feeding, making love, and performing—to plan my departure. I’d met up with the gypsy in the forest a few nights ago, and told him to expect the carriage. It was then I’d found the plan had changed.
“We’ll get the purse, and the caravan before it reaches the castle,” he’d said, pleased. “We’ll meet you in a week hence, a day’s walk to the East. There, we’ll give you your share.”
I was surprised to hear he meant it. That became irritation when he went on to talk of me joining them, as Maris had talked of nothing but me since our time together. It was no surprise he wanted me to marry her, though he made it sound as if it was a good business proposition.
“—she can dance, Maris can. You could make a fair bit of money, with her performing to your music—”
It was clear he expected the marriage to take place right after we divided the loot. While it was encouraging he’d meant to keep his part of the bargain, there was no way I was marrying anyone, much less that young twit. However, a flat refusal would offend him. Agreeing right away would also cast suspicion, as he’d offered me no dowry.
“I will need to consider this,” I said seriously. “May I bed her again, before I leave?”
Maris was in my arms a few seconds later, and she was forward enough to begin taking off my clothes. I pushed her down into the grass before she could, closed my eyes, and made love to her quickly, imagining her to be Anna. After we’d finished, I made my excuses and slipped away, even as she pleadingly whined for me to come back.
As I traveled, I tried to come up with some other plan for getting my share of the loot besides marrying Maris and then killing her. While I’d killed before with no qualms, I still retained a shred of honor: I could not promise to protect a woman, then turn around and simply kill her. Perhaps I could lay my hands on a portion of the dowry, let the gypsies inside to steal, then slip away, leaving them to be caught. It was going to have to do as a plan for now. I faced another, more urgent dilemma.
Going to my lady in waiting smelling of lovemaking would surely enrage her. But where else could I go? There was a washbasin in the room where Anna and I met, but that might lead me to run into Anna herself. Seeing Anna would make trouble, as she might well know the scent of semen, even though she’d always acted pristine. Instead, I went to a stream outside the castle and used up my last sliver of soap to wash my body clean, though the water was freezing, and there was ice on my body and in my hair before I finished.
I thanked my senses for that bit of genius the moment I reentered the castle. Anna was waiting for me, even though she was not supposed to be.
“Where were you?” she said flatly. “Catching deer? Or is it salmon this time, as your hair is wet?”
“You mean trout,” I said, pushing past her. “Salmon do not live anywhere near here, Annabelle.”
“Don’t speak to me like I’m a child!”
I turned and stepped into her, so we were only a hand’s-breadth apart. To my surprise, she didn’t back down. “What is it to you, Milady? I am not your betrothed, that you should be concerned about my whereabouts at night.”
“I was worried,” she said softly. “I heard Fiona say she’d been looking for you—”
Wonderful. There went my peaceful night.
“—and I looked everywhere, sure you had to be within the castle grounds, but you were not here.” She looked at me steadily. “Is it because you are with someone else? Being intimate with another woman?”
I gave her a faint smile, and tilted her chin up so we were only an inch apart. “I am with another woman, the one I’ve been sneaking off to see.” I kissed her cheek lightly, and then I tried for her lips, already imagining how soft they would be.
Instead, I got a resounding slap. It didn’t hurt me, being vampire, but it sure got my attention.
“Cad,” she said bitterly. “Don’t pretend that you care for me. You’ve been here not even a fortnight, and already bedded two different women. I’ll not be the third.”
I gave her a wounded look, trying to regain my composure that was for some reason failing me. “I told you why that was. I needed a place to sleep—”
“You had sex with them, Devlin. You were not chastely sleeping next to them for money, as you let me believe. I asked around. You’re infamous for the lovers you’ve had. The man I asked went so far as to say you’d have anyone that would have you.”
Now I was offended. “That’s not true.”
“Stay away from me,” she said in a warning tone. “I’m to be married the day after tomorrow. I’m not going to give myself to a rake who doesn’t care for me—”
“I do care for you,” I blurted out. “It was nice to spend those nights with you reading, to hear your passion in your voice.”
“Take your coin,” she said, throwing it at me and stalking off. “And leave.”
I stood there for some time, considering my options. I picked the purse up, finally, trying to make sense of all I was feeling. Then I went to Anna’s father’s study, sat in his overstuffed chair, and settled in for the night. Going to Fiona, if that was indeed her name, would just result in an argument, no matter that I didn’t smell of anything but myself now. I had no desire to bed her, even to give myself a place to sleep.
That lasted only a half hour; the chair was uncomfortable, being much too small. Instead, I stretched out on the nearby sofa, and slept there. As much as I knew it was risky, this being Anna’s father’s study, I wanted to be alone tonight. I felt chastened by what Anna had said, though I didn’t understand why.
So what if she’d pointed out things about me that weren’t noble? They were true, and that was how things were. I was stuck in this low social class now, and there was no way I’d ever ascend again into the upper class with no money and no name. Hell, back then, money couldn’t buy a title, unless it was a real fortune. So why not have the small pleasures that were allowed me? What was wrong in that? Didn’t my immortality give me a warrant to do what I pleased, within certain guidelines? I considered that for a while, and wasn’t sure.
I decided one thing that night, though. I was going to bed Anna before I left, whatever else happened.