ORIGINAL BLOOD SERIES -A vampire dynasty is born.-

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Two women born centuries apart share a tragic destiny as they become vampires, one to build a powerful vampire family, and her great-granddaughter who, though human, must lead the dynasty into the 21st century against its creator and those who fear her unique blood will destroy the vampire nation.

GAILENE'S VOW (book one)

*DESTINY IS IN THE BLOOD*

 

CHAPTER ONE

Washington D.C.–present

My scream choked off as if frozen in the air along with the white puffs of my breath. Terror forced my ice skates out across the frozen pond, blood pounding in my ears with each thrust of my legs. When I chanced a glance back, he was impossibly gone from the wide-open ice. The Washington Monument, sleek and barren of emotion, loomed ominously above the trees in the distant grey dusk. Despair engulfed me as I jerked my eyes forward, flooding my mind with prayers that went immediately unanswered: his horrid, insipid gaze was just inches from my face.

He glided backwards on the ice as fast as I skated forward, though he wore no skates and his body showed no motion. His voice entered my mind: I’m going to taste you, Zondra. I tried desperately to stop, but slid into his outstretched arms and legs that wrapped about me like a lover, drawing me to him. I arched away, pushing against his chest as he bent toward my neck, mouth opening horridly wide as slender fangs seemed to materialize with a sound as soft as a breath.

His pallid face passed my vision when his cold hand angled my head to the side—and that’s when I saw him, just a blur of color, nothing really to focus on. In an instant, he was across the pond and upon us. The one who held me yelped, almost bird-like, when something snapped by my ear. Cold viscous liquid blasted the side of my face, my eyes—then the ice broke.

As I slid into the black water, I saw two others, lips curled back, talon-like teeth bared, collide with the one who had come to aid me. For that frozen moment his face turned toward me and I knew what should be unknowable: that I was, and always had been, his.

***

His smile was unusually calming. Some would probably say he had a perfect Rossetti-luscious mouth, but it wasn’t. It rose crooked on one side, as if a happy joke lay behind those slightly angled front teeth. Even before his mouth stretched into a smile, those lips carved in bold strokes were uncannily smooth and the color vague as if leached by a persistent sun. It was a mouth with imperfections, a mouth with character. It was the first thing I remembered after I died.

When I awoke, if becoming awake is in any sense accurate, I instinctively coughed, gasping for air. I clutched at my neck, feeling for something that was no longer there. I should have been frightened, hysterical even, but his smile brought my immediate panic under control. My eyes didn’t leave his captivating lips that now talked to me. I couldn’t understand what he said, for every sound was unintelligible oddly pleasant noise.

My eyes shifted up to meet his—the connection was immediate and profound: I was absorbed into memories of others. As with the image of his mouth, his eyes alone were all I could see. The lashes, delicate and long, blinked like pearlescent wings, opening to wide irises so dark their absence of light was like a vacuum drawing me in. Although only an instant, it seemed a lifetime, for when released from this mysterious grasp and my eyes slipped away, I felt a connection with him more complete than I had with myself. The pain of his suffering wrapped about me so tightly, I began to choke. Tears that seemed not to be mine alone gushed spontaneously. I absentmindedly wiped them away and looked down at my wet hands: they were covered in blood.

Dazed, my eyes climbed back to his. They were closed, his head tilted back in a kind of ecstasy while he inhaled as if trying to capture every nuance of an intoxicating aroma. The trance ended abruptly when he opened his comforting eyes to look directly at me. His lingering smile changed to concern when he said, “For the time being, Zondra, it would be best if you learned to cry in private.”

He handed me a small white towel that promptly turned red as I folded it around my hands. He sat on the edge of the bed and wiped my face with another towel he wet from a plastic water bottle. As he carefully tended to me, he seemed to be cooing, yet his mouth remained closed. When finished, he held me away by the shoulders, inspecting me as a mother would a child.

“Much better. You’ll have enough questions of your own without being grilled with those you have no answers to.”

At that prompt, the questions piled up inside me, caught at the back of my throat. He got up and sat in the chair next to the hospital bed. He was tall and lean, sinewy from some kind of work—not the gym. Maybe he was late twenties, thirty at most. He looked strangely odd in hospital whites. In one sense, he seemed ordinary, a guy you would pass on the street and glance up to, maybe smile, then go on your way. But if you happened to look again, you’d see what you’d missed, and then proceed to walk into someone because you couldn’t pull your eyes away. His eyes, melancholy within sensuous folds, offset a European face sculpted in hard angles and curves like his lips.

Suddenly, a flash of memory leapt up so immediate, I yelped, batting at black water closing over me. The image dissolved, transforming into an even more terrifying event: a hangman’s noose lowering over my head. My body jerked in protest until his cold hand laid on my arm.

“You’re having combined recollections,” he said, cutting through my distress. His voice lowered as if it was painful to finish speaking. “I hope to help you with them.”

I swallowed several times before I was able to force the words past the tightness in my throat. “You’re not a doctor, are you?”

“Actually, I am, but not yours.”

I tried to grasp a wisp of memory. “I know you, somehow.”

He nodded. “Yes. Somehow.”

I pressed. “How?”

“That will come later.”

My cynical side advanced. “Then what the hell are you doing here?” I looked around the double occupancy hospital room for the first time. The adjacent bed was empty. A plastic line of red led from my arm up to a blood pouch. The pitch of my voice cracked on a high note. “What the hell am I doing here?”

“You drowned.” His serene voice delivered truth without the sharp edges.

I smiled sardonically. “If I had drowned, I’d be dead.” I wrapped my arms across my chest, a defiant gesture, not to confirm the obvious. “Clearly, I’m not.”

With the same composure he stated, “You were.”

The hallway door opened and I turned as a young nurse strode in. The dividing curtains between the beds flew up in a sudden gust of wind, tangling across my lap. The surprised nurse threw up her hands when her hair whipped about her face and her dress fluttered around her legs. She squeaked something in another language, then stared at me in a second round of surprise.

“Oh my, this is such a good thing! You are awake.” She talked as rapidly as her little feet moved, rushing her to me. Clutching her hands to her chest like a little girl about to receive a birthday present, she continued in her heavily accented dialect. “How are you feeling? Oh, you just don’t know how special you are. Please, let me take your vitals.” She grabbed the call button lying by my hand. “Oh, the doctors will be so pleased. I am calling them now.”

“Well, there’s a doctor already here,” I began to tell her as I turned toward the now empty chair. Her eyes met my confused gaze as I turned back to her.

“Oh my, but this isn’t such a good sign.”

Within moments, a doctor hovered over me, poking through my hair. With a gasp, he jerked back from me. “What the—?”

His face was caught in surprise, stymied, as if he’d been slapped for no apparent reason. My uncharacteristically quiet nurse glanced up from swathing my arm where she had pulled out the drip needle. Fright wrinkled her brow when she saw the doctor’s wan complexion. Her mouth opened, but no words came out.

I reached up to my face to check for some massive disfigurement that had turned them both so pale, but the doctor leaned back in, brushing away my hands. Without finesse, he rummaged through my hair again, finally picking something out. He stiffened, and ran a hand over his face as if the world would change back to how it had been before he entered my room.

“I don’t understand it.” He shot a suspicious look at my nurse, and spat. “Is this the one from the skating accident?”

My petrified Chatty Kathy shrunk away from his stare. The doctor grabbed my chart from the end of my bed, poking his finger at it as he scanned every line. He stared at me and swallowed, but said nothing. I’d had enough.

“Just what’s the damn problem, Doc? You think I’m back from the dead, too?”

His eyebrows arched to his hairline. “Who told you that?” He shot a glance at my nurse, who weakly shook her head.

I brought his gaze back to me. “It was that inscrutable doctor that was just here, who I might add, mysteriously disappeared.”

My waif nurse spoke up before any accusations could fly her way. “I didn’t see anyone. I think it was the bump on her head.”

“That’s just it!” he stammered face crimson. “There’s no bump on her head. No cut, no mark of any kind. Only these.” He opened his hand, revealing several tiny black squiggly things resting in his palm. “These are your stitches.”

Within minutes, it seemed every doctor and nurse in the hospital was jammed in my room examining me, all like characterizations of Sigmund Freud, with hand to chin, going “hmmm, very interesting.”

By the looks in their collective eyes, they seemed to think that I was part of a conspiracy to make them all look like fools. When their lettered medical minds couldn’t figure out how I managed to miraculously heal a gigantic gash upside my head, they naturally assumed they had been punked.

During this medical brouhaha, I heard the background chatter of how I’d been pulled from a frozen lake with a bloody ice induced laceration on my head, essentially dead. Though I’d been laid out refrigerated on the ice ten minutes before they arrived, the paramedics, bless their courageous hearts, managed to bring me around.

I pictured their story just as any eavesdropper might, because I couldn’t remember any of it, except stopping at the pond on the Mall on the way home from work to watch the snow flurries fluff over the frozen surface. But that’s where my memory faltered. Ice skates and figure eights morphed into dusty images of bright moonlight through a thick canopy of fluttering leaves. I looked up as that noose of raw hemp came down again around my head.

My hands flew to my neck as I let loose a scream so shrill, it froze everyone in the room and brought me back to my hospital bed. Panic set in as I realized my pendant wasn’t there, and I lurched across doctors and nurses in a desperate attempt to check the nightstand.

“Where’s my pendant?” I shrieked in demented falsetto. “Give it back right-fucking-now!”

That’s all the combined medical force in my room needed to descend on me, holding down my thrashing arms and legs to administer a shot of something that within seconds, sent me leaping back more than two centuries.

CHAPTER TWO

Holly-on-Brighton, England–November 1789

Rough breath panted at Gailene’s ear in rhythm with her racing heart. Her body, coated in a sweaty sheen, glowed in candlelight as she slid upon another in pulsing cadence. Arms and legs tangled, fingers reaching for one another. Glorious moans escaped lips with each breath, while salt burnt eyes and flavored roaming tongues.

Gailene drew herself up to ride Fenton in full gallop. By the same wavering light from the hearth that threw her lithe silhouette onto the log and mortar wall of the cabin, Fenton’s powerfully cut features stood out in sharp relief. The hard straight edge of his nose that settled into hollowed cheeks gave him the air of a Greek warrior from which he laughingly swore descendancy. However, the fire in his swarthy eyes betrayed Spanish heritage. Except in name, there seemed nothing English about him. It was staring into those eyes that weakened her resolve and made her wet.

She arched her back away from the overpowering fireplace heat to meet the cool air of the room that flowed down over her face and breasts, renewing her. Rocking hard against Fenton’s thighs, she ground down while he plowed up deep into her. Each thrust was like cannon fire between her legs, unifying their rapturous screams.

Gailene collapsed onto Fenton with a sigh. He stroked her hair and whispered into her ear. “Why the lament, dearest? Do our rendezvous upset you so?”

“On outset, I am eager, but on conclusion, there are regrets.”

“Then why don’t you come and stay with me? By God’s truth, I can care for you better than Kerrick.”

She rolled off him onto her back, staring at the shadows jumping on the ceiling from the firelight. “He is my husband and I love him. You are his best friend and should love him also.”

Fenton turned on his side to study her silhouette and the now steady rise and fall of her breasts. Her skin, as smooth and white as a dove’s breast, begged to be touched, but her deep jade faraway eyes, naturally defiant, kept everyone at bay but for him and Kerrick. Her lips, full and always flush, cut to a fine taper where they met her cheeks. Hers was a mouth that drew attention in its serenity, a mouth that rarely smiled. But it had always smiled for him.

“I do love Kerrick, as a man can love a brother, and you know the truth in that.” He ran coarse fingers over the tender skin of her cheek. “But I love you more, my Gailene.”

She batted his hand away as if it were a mouse fallen from the rafters. “Just stop that talk, Fenton Ryder! You don’t love me and I am not yours to love.”

Sitting up, he grabbed her hands. “Then why do you call me to you? Are you so fond of torturing me?”

She pulled away, slipping off the bed, her thatch of red hair seemingly igniting from the firelight as it slapped against her back. “Me thinks I torture myself all the more for these rendezvous. I feel but a harlot at these times.”

Fenton reached for her, but she stepped further away into the shadows. “Please, darling, don’t speak of yourself as such. We’ve held company since we were children.”

“How can I not, when I desire your sex so strongly, the same as any streetwalker.” She came back to the bedside and took his hands. “T’were better we finished such trysts and live blamelessly.”

Alarmed, Fenton sprang from the bed to gather Gailene in his arms. “You cannot mean it!”

She pushed against his comfort. “I’ve made up my mind.”

“But dearest, I don’t want—“

“This isn’t about our wants, Fenton. Our desires are wrong, and we both know it.” She pushed harder against his still wet chest. “Release me and don your clothes.”

Fenton’s will dissolved and his arms fell to his sides. His powerful muscles were no match to Gailene’s resolve. He felt like a boy before his scolding mother, powerless and guilt ridden.

She went to the washstand and poured water from the clay pitcher into the plain ceramic bowl. “Get dressed, Fenton. Kerrick arrives home come morn.”

He gathered his clothes, and pulled them on as he watched her wash. His heart and loins ached for her, but talking was useless now. Another month, maybe, but not now. In minutes, both stood dressed and silent at the threshold. Fenton went to embrace her, but she moved back. He couldn’t even gaze into her eyes for she hung her head low. He swept his dagger and flintlock pistol off the side table and stuck them in his waistband, then took up his sabre from its perch by the door and affixed it to his belt.

While his hands were busy at that task, Gailene stepped in and embraced him, trapping his arms. “I do love you, Fenton, and this will not change. But please, I beg of you, go back to being Kerrick’s true friend and leave me to be his true wife.”

She stepped away and with great difficulty, pulled her wet eyes up to his. His strength to oppose multiple adversaries in combat was not sufficient to keep the tears from his eyes. Forcing his words was harder than facing death. “I will abide by your desire, my—”

He stood motionless, lost in the universe of his empty heart, then leaned forward and brought a handful of Gailene’s hair to his face, inhaling its fragrance for the last time. Within the moment, he was out the door, swallowed by the darkness. Seconds later, the whinny of his horse and sudden thumping hooves, were testament to his painful departure. When the horse’s rhythmic clomp died away, Gailene fell against the door, pushing it shut as she crumpled to the floor. Shaking in silence, she bit back the tears until her screams of agony and regret finally escaped.

***

In a swirl of dust, Fenton yanked his horse to an abrupt halt in front of the Mounted Head Road House, leaving the saddle in a continuous movement. His sorrowful tears had dried to dirt-caked streaks on his cheeks, but his savage expression countered the physical betrayal. He stomped into the golden smoke-filled light and barked his order as he took a table in the far corner that on the sudden became vacant of its two inhabitants.

The din of the pub fell off to silence as the serving maid scurried over and placed a pint of ale in front of him. She stepped back, cocking her hands on ample hips, eyeing him in a squint.

“You sure look caught up in desperate misery, Fenton Ryder. What ails thee?”

He snatched up the ale, but stopped as the rim of the mug touched his lips. Behind the voluptuous barmaid, the whole bar of twenty heads stared at him. He slammed the mug down, slopping half of it onto the tabletop. The barmaid jumped with a yelp.

“Get on with yer own business, then!” he shouted to the room.

The young girl hastily wiped at the spill with her apron as all heads turned away and the steady drone of chatter resumed. Fenton grabbed her hand.

“Enough, Morwenna! Quit being the nosey wench you are and fetch me another, then let me be.”

When the girl returned and placed the tankard before him, Fenton clinked a coin onto the table. She flourished a sarcastic curtsy as she stuck her tongue out at him. He spoke over the pewter rim as it neared his lips.

“On yer way back with my next draught, balance the tray with a flagon of rye.”

Draining his tankard in one upturn, Fenton wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He eyed the room with suspicious glare, but his focus wavered, and he dropped his gaze into the empty mug. Morwenna approached, bumping her thighs into the table, then followed with a noisy delivery of draught and flagon as she clunked them on the table. Without looking, Fenton dropped his leather purse beside them.

“Take what you need, Morwenna. Yer the only honest moll I know.”

As Morwenna reached for the purse, three coins bounced onto the table, danced around in tight circles, then came to rest under her fingers. A smooth, pleasant voice followed the clink of the coins. “Please, allow me this honor, for I would request the pleasure of your company.”

Fenton slowly raised his eyes from the coins to their owner. Calm, self-assured eyes, black, absorbing, met his wary gaze. They brought to mind the Orientals he’d seen in the teahouses of London Town, but yet, not the same. Fenton’s eyes raked over the man before him. His two hands rested comfortably on the sword hilt at his left hip, while his face remained relaxed, a slight smile on thin lips. There was no hint of malicious intent on his pale face. On any other, that pallid visage would denote ill health, but this man, although quite slender, looked fit in every other way.

A cape of dark purple skimmed the floor, fastened at his neck by a silver broach of a bat with wings spread. His clothes were luxurious, stylish and clean, so it was obvious he didn’t arrive on horseback. Although he dressed like a dandy, Fenton sensed he wasn’t an ordinary fop. He nodded, and the man relaxed his smile and took the rough-hewn seat opposite. The man looked out of place in a tavern like this, yet he seemed at ease. Fenton shot a look around the room; it also seemed that most women squirmed in their seats whenever they flicked their eyes his way.

“Ah, but aren’t women just like that?” The satin voice drew Fenton’s attention back to the man across from him.

“What do you know of it, friend? I have not spoken yet a word to ye.”

“Forgive me my intrusion into your thoughts, but I can see that you are a man of some fortitude. I would be surprised greatly if there be any man or sundry life circumstance that could bring the likes of you so low.”

“Aye, but reasons of discomposure are many.” Fenton brought his mug to dry lips.

“Aye to that, friend, but tear tracks down dirty cheeks hint only of a woman’s involvement.”

Fenton slammed down his tankard with a loud crack, the ale slopping out in a whoosh. Half the pub jerked their heads in his direction, but the man didn’t flinch or change his serene expression. This non-reaction alone caused Fenton’s tongue to stick to his pallet. Fenton abandoned his aggressive impulse and sank back into his chair. The hot blood left his face and he rubbed his chin. Then he laughed. Everyone else took that as a signal to mind their own business once again.

Morwenna delivered an empty mug and departed, though her eyes lingered on the gentleman as she sauntered back across the room.

Fenton ran his fingers through the spilt beer, then wiped the liquid on his face, scouring both cheeks. A few quick swipes with his shirtsleeve and all trace of melancholy were erased.

“It takes a confident man to render so personal an opinion to a total stranger. You have a hearty sack of balls, I’ll give you that.”

The man made a gesture unknown to Fenton, but it seemed honorable. With almost bright curiosity, Fenton inquired, “Where might you be from, then. It’s certain you’re not from these parts.”

“My origins are from France, the city of Avignon.”

Fenton’s eyebrows arched. “But you have no accent, sir. You speak the same as myself.”

The man smiled, a hint of teeth glinting in the harsh lantern light. He imitated a heavy French accent. “I can speeek like zeess eef you prefer.”

Both men laughed out loud, their eyes meeting in a shared security of trust. Fenton grabbed up the flagon and poured the man a rim full. “Drink up, my friend. All that wit must have made you thirsty.”

They touched mugs. “A votre santé,” said the Frenchman.

“Here’s mud in yer eye,” said the Englishman.

While Fenton drained his tankard, the Frenchman sipped and returned his mug to the table. He put out his hand. “My name is Christophe Bouchard,Prince du Sang, marquis de Château de Rivière aux Cuivre.”

Ale shot up through Fenton’s nose as he tried to suppress a laugh. “That’s a mighty mouthful of the alphabet, I must say!

The Marquis grinned as Fenton took his hand in a firm grip. “It’s all just a show of heritage, title, and place.”

As their handshake broke, Fenton shivered off the chill from the man’s icy hand, then met the Marquis’s grin with one of his own. “Aye, but no English Lord would ever venture a visit here.”

Fenton then rose to attention, and flourished a showy bow to his guest. “I am Fenton Ryder, Captain of the guard, 7th Cavalry, 5th Dragoons. Pleased to make your acquaintance, your lordship.”

The Marquis waved away the sarcastic title and motioned Fenton back to his seat. “Please, be so kind as to call me Christophe.”

Fenton gave a polite nod as the man continued. “Before such a title graced my name, I partook in many fine adventures in places such as this. I was not born to privilege. My title was conjoined with my blood, making me, as it were, a direct heir to the throne”

Raising the flagon to pour another for the Marquis, Fenton saw that his drink was scarcely touched. He topped his own mug instead. Christophe continued with a smile. “To answer your concern as to why I would venture into an establishment for the common folk, I will say that I came for a purpose.”

Trying to read his intention, Fenton eyed the Marquis and took a long swallow. “And that purpose would be?”

“To offer you employment.”

Fenton’s swallow went down hard, but he placed the tankard back gently on the table as he locked eyes with Christophe. “So, it seems you know me already. It is a criminal offense to sway opinion of the Royal Guard.”

The Marquis eyes didn’t stray from Fenton’s and his demeanor remained calm. “You misinterpret my intentions, sir. There is no bribe in my offer. Simply, I would like you to come with me to France to be the captain of my lord’s guard.”

Relaxing back, Fenton shook his head. “But sir, I know you not and on no account would I abandon my post to serve a foreign lord, in any case.”

“I would hope for you to know me better in due time. As to the account of my Lord, he is, in fact, English.”

“Sir, do you think me a dunce? I know that an English Lord cannot be a descendant of a French King.”

The Marquis laughed. “Ah, the seed of kings and Queens comes from all corners, no? But anyway, I hardly think you the dunce or I would not make an offer of five times your annual pay.”

Speechless, Fenton fell back in his chair. Conflicting aphorisms popped into his mind: If it’s too good to be true… Don’t look a gift horse in… Be careful what you …

Christophe leaned forward, spoke low. “You see, my country is going through a period of, ah, adjustment, you might call it. Many in the noble ranks have brought the ire of the common man down upon them and thus sought refuge in foreign lands. However, my lord wishes to stay in his adopted country.”

Another swallow of warm ale flushed down Fenton’s perpetually dry throat. “How’s this concern me, then?”

“We need our guard trained in modern methods of protection by someone with superior combat skills, but more importantly, moral regard and solid integrity.”

Fenton laughed, slapping the tabletop, jumping everything on it. “By the stars, why do you think I am that man?”

“Seven years ago, when you were a lad of twenty, and found yourself skirmishing with American secessionists, you showed what you were made of one very impressive night.”

All levity left Fenton as he leaned toward the other man. “This is a subject no one who knows me speaks of.”

The man continued, unperturbed. “Your gallantry saved yourself and your entire squad.

“What would you know of such things?”

“A unit of light cavalry, French-led Hussars to be precise, came upon your squad of Light Infantry. Soon, they found themselves outnumbered and surrounded. Only a handful survived and you took them prisoner.”

“What is gallant about winning a skirmish when I had ten men to their one?”

“The gallantry came from what you did after the battle.”

Fenton pressed his memory, but couldn’t lock on to anything tangible. A sarcastic tone covered his embarrassment. “My memory fails me, sir. Please enlighten.”

“It was not allowing your men to kill a wounded prisoner.”

Suspicion and curiosity filled Fenton in equal measures. “How come ye by this knowledge?”

“I was that prisoner.”

Fenton stared at the man across from him in disbelief. “Impossible, what you say!” he roared. “That man was as old as you are now.”

“Yes, I will explain that later, but for now, please consider my offer. If you would accompany me to my carriage, I will show you a contract of your duties and bestow you twenty pounds for merely looking. No obligation.”

Fenton eyed him carefully, but his mind flew to Gailene and the entirely new future he would be able to offer her. He rose to his feet. “As they say, no harm in looking.” Fenton cleared the girth of the table and came alongside the man, making a show of his hand resting on the butt of his pistol. “I must warn you, sir, that any attempt at foul play will immediately result in a pistol ball in your eye.”

Christophe grinned and nodded. “Now who would want such a fate as that?”

The room dropped to silence again as everyone’s stare followed the Marquis and Fenton out the front door. Pulling on his coat, Fenton wrapped the collar tight against his neck, shutting out the brisk wind that had picked up. Christophe, cape open and billowing, led the way around the side of the roadhouse where his enclosed carriage stood, the black lacquer set aglow by two ornate carriage lights placed high by the driver’s box. At the front, two impatient horses, lustrous black shadows snorting puffs of steam, stamped their hooves on the hard ground.

The driver hopped out as they approached and stood at attention while holding the door open. Christophe gestured to the door with open palm, but Fenton held back, returning a broad smile and the same gesture. Acknowledging the reverse courtesy, Christophe bowed slightly, then enter the carriage with Fenton following. The driver pressed the door shut, then climbed to the perch.

The interior, lit by four candles within carved crystal shades, cast a warm glow that sent Fenton’s mind to the image of Gailene’s naked body draped across the bed in the yellow candle light of her room. With a silent sigh, he sunk into the luxury of the maroon seat, its felt texture under his hands like that of young skin.

Christophe sat opposite, a serene presence, waiting. The men studied each other in silence. Fenton had played this game many times with his recruits, his few friends, and his women. He was good at assessing people’s desires and motives. It came naturally to him, though he couldn’t say what, precisely he sensed from this acute ability. What it allowed him, however, was the knack to manipulate people to his own ends. His responses to these perceptions he gleaned were instantaneous in word or action, allowing him to sway people to his way of thinking. But with this man before him now, his senses were as dulled as if peering into a doorpost. He wondered at the real motive behind this lofty offer. After all, a captain at any of the royal residences or the palace itself, would be much more in demand than he, marooned in the provinces.

The Marquis spoke, his voice filling the coach like a gentle breeze. “I have chosen you for several reasons, young man, one being your innate ability to know people’s desires, unknown even to them.”

Fenton sat up, tensed. “How come ye to such a conclusion, pray tell?”

“Along with my memory of our shared experience, I have watched you for several weeks now, assessing your potential for this post. Also, I happen to possess the same skill, although much more developed. I hope to teach you what I know in that regard.”

Waving his hand in dismissal, Fenton relaxed again into the seat. “You talk nonsense, sir, but if it pleases you, no skin lost of mine.” He glanced over Christophe with narrowed eyes.

“Surely you are no older than myself, I dare say younger, yet you call me young man. Why do you insult me so?”

Christophe laughed, lilting, but not foppish. “I mean no disrespect, sir. I sometimes forget that my looks belie my actual age.”

“And what might that be, pray?”

“For now, let’s just say that I am older than you.”

Fenton’s thoughts wandered until he came back to the interest at hand. “What of the other reasons, then?”

“Your mind is quick, your decisions decisive…” Christophe smiled at his own thought, “although at times, not in the best interest of the situation at hand.”

Fenton opened his mouth to protest, but Christophe waved him off. “I also like your abilities with weapons. You have a very interesting style. It would be my pleasure to teach you so many more.”

Now, it was Fenton who laughed heartily. “What makes you think a bony lad such as yourself could teach me the ways of fighting? I dare say a strong wind could put you at disadvantage.”

Christophe laughed with him. “Ah, my friend, you must be aware that looks can be deceiving. True mastery of the martial arts comes with technique and speed, not brawn.”

“Aye, that is true. Lucky for me, I have all three.”

“And an inflated ego to match,” Christophe added with great mirth.

The smile left Fenton’s lips. “I can snatch that broach from your neck before you can recite your mother’s name!”

“If it pleases you to try.”

Fenton’s hand shot out like a cobra strike. An inch before his fingers touched the silver bat, Christophe’s fingertips caught his hand like a blacksmith’s vice, arresting its advance. On reflex, Fenton tried to pull his hand back but couldn’t move it. He jammed it forward with no results. Fury rose fast in his face and he whipped his free hand around, aiming for a head punch, but Christophe’s other hand intercepted this effort with an open palm like a stone wall, stopping Fenton’s fist. Two more attempts to breach the palm defense proved futile, nor could he shake his hand free of the three fingers that held it tight.

This preposterous scenario took on a dreamlike quality causing Fenton’s head to swim in confusion. As rapidly as Christophe had captured him, he was released, falling back into his seat. Fenton rubbed his temples trying to clear his mind.

“Are you sorcerer or demon, for no man can accomplish a feat such as this otherwise?”

“Some would say a lot of both.”

“Hogwash! Such things do not exist!”

“Oh, I assure you that they do. I can witness you many more proofs, but that is not why I am here. And I mean you no harm, Fenton Ryder. In truth, I want you to join my family and achieve all of your potential.”

“What does all this mean, by God?”

“It means, young sir, that you can be like me. Forever like me.”

Fenton pulled himself up to sit rigidly. There had never been a time in his life when he knew not what defensive move he would take if the need arose.

“You don’t have to fear an attack from me, Fenton. I want nothing from you that you don’t offer by free will.”

“What, you mean my acceptance to your post?”

“That is but a small part of it. What I offer is so much more in every way. I could not tell you this inside the tavern. I was certain a demonstration would be more convincing of my sincerity.”

“Just what are you asking of me, then?”

“You see, unlike the folklore, we cannot bring someone into our family without their permission. We do not turn riff-raff, scoundrels or miscreants. Additions to our family are chosen with extreme care, such as I have chosen you.”

Sweat flushed Fenton’s body and his heart galloped. “Of what do you speak, man! What are you? Say it plainly.”

A voice, again like a breeze wafting about the cabin, came to Fenton, although Christophe’s lips remained closed and still. “I am vampire.”

Fenton stared at the Marquis, but not in the terror he thought would overtake his natural senses. He was caught between the fingers of overwhelming fear and confounding curiosity. The latter held his disbelief that kept the former in check. Although his knife hand wrapped firmly around the hilt of his dagger, he didn’t draw it. The sweat turned cold on his face as the decision to talk or fight had their own battle in his mind. He knew, as an experienced warrior, that taking one moment to contemplate such an action would more than likely end in death, for nothing is truer in war than the saying He who hesitates is lost.

He removed his hand from the weapon and relaxed back in his seat, then brought up his courage in a show of words. “Do you intend to make me the same as you? Will I become a blood-sucking beast of the night?”

Christophe gazed at him curiously, then closed his eyes for some seconds while taking in a deep breath, as if recalling some long ago memory. When he reopened his eyes, his expression was wistful, compassionate. “I was so much like you when I was a man. My lord approached me in a similar manner, with a similar offer. I remember my confusion of terror and curiosity, the same as you have now. I, like you, needed an exhibition of the future before I could decide. You see, many of us bring our own moral sensibilities and ethical resolves, and there are ways to adjust to this life-in-death. But, yes, it is through blood that we live.”

“I suppose it is clear that if you wanted to feast on me, I would be powerless to stop you, so I am only left in believing your proposal to be in truth. However, I still don’t understand why you have chosen me above all others to bestow these gifts upon.”

“The simplicity of the answer is the hardest to understand. Vampires live a very long time. We do not die of natural causes. Death has to be brought to our door. Although many of us have human friends, their meager lifespans cause us great pain when they pass on all too soon. In the end, we all desire a companion, so if we don’t find one within the vampire world, we search the human world. My search has led me to you.”

Fenton held quiet, for as confused as he thought he was, he now felt calm. He understood this confession from the Marquis as something equal within himself. He spoke haltingly.

“As much as I understand your intention, I have to tell you that my own best friend resides not far from here. We have our own history growing up together.”

“I’m sure, as you seem very happy sharing his wife.”

Fenton turned livid. His natural tendency to pounce was thwarted by his newfound common sense, forcing his true emotion into clenched jaws and knotted fists.

Christophe placed a cold soft hand on Fenton’s arm. “Don’t take it so badly, sir. We are all victims of our desires in one form or another.” He leaned forward, index fingers to chin, creating the thought to share with Fenton. “I think you understand, deep in your heart, that she will never be yours. To continue on your present course will suffer the demise of both friendship and illicit romance.”

Fenton raised his eyes to Christophe’s dark, knowing stare. “So, through your gift of eternal life I will gain the ability to achieve my desire?”

Christophe sat back, shaking his head. “Not quite. On the contrary, once turned, you won’t care.”

 

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