“A Borrowed Heart”
Under ordinary circumstances, Lenore Hasland would not have accepted an engagement with a patron she herself had not approved. A succession of wealthy men and more than a few ladies had left her financially secure. However, Lord Robert had become a friend as well as benefactor, so she could not easily refuse his plea.
“My son pines away,” he told her. “He languishes. These past weeks, he’s become a spineless wreck. I know none so capable as you, dearest siren, in rousing a man to cheerfulness.”
Because of rumors of a vampire in the district, Lenore arrived at the young lord’s townhouse wearing a silver cross on a ribbon that matched her gown. She carried a vial of holy water along with her usual dagger.
She paused at the entrance and assembled her sweetest expression. Here was she, a good two hours late and already regretting her promise. What had she been thinking? And why did so many fathers insist that an evening with a beautiful lady would “make a man” out of their sons, when so clearly an evening with a beautiful gentleman was preferred? She should be packing for her visit home, a visit too long impossible. At least she’d be able to sleep during the journey, for the use of Lord Robert’s carriage had been part of her fee.
The steward, no doubt forewarned, escorted her upstairs, indicated the appropriate door, and then discreetly withdrew. The door swung open on its oiled hinges and Lenore stepped into a gentleman’s parlor, the dark, heavy furniture quite masculine in taste. Sounds—the creak of weight shifting on furniture, the rustle of linens—issued from the interior room.
The bedroom door was slightly ajar and through it drifted the scent of perfume. She frowned, for she prided herself on her knowledge of fragrances. This one she did not know, powerful and subtle, but not one a man would choose.
If the son had already found a companion, so much the better. It would not be the first time an anxious parent had intervened without need.
“No… Please, no more, I beg you…” The voice was young, raw. Male. And in earnest, not love-play.
“Ahhh…” A woman’s voice responded, resonant with hunger.
“For the love of God!”
Lenore slid through the open door. Ranges of candles, an extravagance of half-melted beeswax, flooded the chamber with honey-soft light. A huge, elaborately carved bed dominated the chamber. The satin coverlet tangled with articles of clothing.
Even in the yellow-toned light, the bare body of the young man was as devoid of color as marble. His hair clung to his shoulders like seaweed on a drowned corpse. His head was turned to the wall so that she could not discern his features, but his limbs were long and shapely.
A woman sat astride his hips, her skin as luminescent as pearl, her unbound hair cascading past her waist. Her body pulsated with desire on the brink of culmination. The man arched his body to meet her rhythm, even as he continued to struggle. His fingers twisted in the sheets. He threw his head from side to side, and Lenore saw his face—
Lenore was not ignorant of sexual violence. Men could be raped as well as women. It was better to act decisively and apologize later.
She darted across the room and grabbed a handful of the other woman’s silky mane. As she had been taught, she set her stance and used the strength of her torso to drag her adversary to the floor. The woman spun away, loosening Lenore’s hold, and rolled to her feet.
Unashamed of her nakedness, the woman faced Lenore—no, surely this could not be a mortal woman. She was not flesh but rose and pearl and shimmering gold. A scent rose up from her skin like every desire unspoken in the dark.
Not human, then. Lilith-kind?
The succubus hissed, “Get out, she-creature! This is none of your affair!”
“Indeed?” Lenore slipped one hand between the folds of her skirt and drew her dagger from its sheath. “This boy’s father has placed him in my care. He is mine.”
On the bed, the youth fought for breath. Sweat glistened on his skin, deathly pale except for his quivering erection, which glistened with the juices of the succubus.
“Take him if you want him,” the creature said in a careless tone. “He’s almost drained. I’ll find more delectable hunting elsewhere.”
Lenore did not relax her guard. “Young sir! If you value your life, leave this room instantly!”
With a rustling of bedclothes, the youth stumbled through the outer door. Lenore dared not take her gaze off the succubus to see if he had taken any article of clothing with him. From the expression of the demon, he had not.
For a long moment, neither spoke. Each held her position, Lenore on guard, dagger poised, the succubus increasingly impatient.
“Are you going to keep me here all night? If you know what I am, and I see that you do, then you also must be aware that I pose no threat to you. I cannot feed on your kind.”
“By my kind, you mean women.”
The succubus shrugged.
Lenore wondered why the unearthly creature made no move to rush past her. As an experiment, she advanced a pace, keeping the dagger before her. The succubus flinched.
Ah. The blade was steel, and steel consisted primarily of iron. And iron meant death to some supernatural creatures.
“Sit.” Lenore indicated the bed with the dagger’s point. “We are going to have a conversation, you and I, on the subject of feeding.”
The succubus obeyed with supernal grace. Lenore felt no trace of physical attraction, but her spirit responded to such sublime beauty. She reminded herself that this creature was a murderess many times over and utterly beyond redemption. Beyond redemption had been her father’s parting words.
She lowered herself to the opposite corner of the bed. “Is this—” she indicated the sheets soaked with sweat and lust, “your entire existence?”
“It’s yours, isn’t it?”
Lenore permitted herself a bemused smile. “If you mean I am a whore like yourself and therefore in no position to pass judgment, then you are right. But there are many other things from which one may draw sustenance.”
The expression of the succubus altered. “For your kind, perhaps. Never for mine.”
“What would be the point?”
That, Lenore thought acidly, was the problem with jumping from one bed to the next with no heed for anything beyond physical satisfaction.
“Do you never—?” She broke off the half-formed question. “What happens if you do not…feed? If you are celibate?”
“You mean, would I wither like a vampire deprived of blood?” The succubus shook her head. “Lady, you know nothing. I am vastly older than you, older than these cities or the walled fortresses before them. I remember when the heavens were the color of blood and the moon covered half the sky. Your never is a long time. But, no. I was formed for one purpose only.”
“To seduce men and drain them.”
“To ravish them with pleasure and drink it down like wine.”
“Until they perish.”
“All mortals perish. Is such ecstasy not worth the inconvenience of doing it a little sooner?”
Lenore did not answer straightaway. She thought of the men she had bedded, and the women as well, of how so many had sobbed on her breast as they whispered their secrets, and then slept in the first peace they had known in years. She wanted to cry out that need or loneliness or simple shame did not warrant death.
The succubus waited as one condemned, in imminent expectation of the executioner’s axe.
Lenore laid the dagger on the rumpled sheets. “And you, if you were free to choose…if you were not compelled to lie with men…what would bring you joy?”
Bewilderment frosted the smoky eyes. The succubus had no idea what she was talking about, no notion of poetry or music or the intricate joys of science…but she knew—Lenore saw that she knew—she was missing something.
“Lie down,” Lenore said gently.
The succubus obeyed, in a movement so elegant and so sensual, it took Lenore’s breath away. “You may torture me for as long as it pleases you.”
“I have no thought to bring you pain.”
The succubus closed her eyes. Her chest lifted, accentuating the curve of her breasts.
She is shaped like a woman. Should she then not have a woman’s capacity for pleasure?
Lenore took one rose-pearl hand between hers and began to stroke the long fingers, the delicate wrist. As she moved up the arm, she experimented, caressing lightly or massaging more deeply, always searching the other’s face for any hint of discomfort. She did not touch the rounded breasts, for that was what a man would do, a man thinking only of his own desires. Instead, she traced the sternum, circled the muscle of the shoulders and the curve of the ribs.
The succubus was breathing more slowly now. Tremors shivered across her belly. Lenore wondered if she had made a mistake, if what she attempted were impossible. Then she glimpsed a gleam of wetness at the corner of one eye. The next instant, the tear was gone. Lenore kissed the sweetly arching cheekbone and tasted salt.
The succubus lay very still.
She was not made for this. It may be the first time in all her existence that anyone has touched her with kindness.
Kindness. Not lust or violence or the need to possess.
Lenore placed her hands on the belly, fingers curved to follow the contours. The skin was cool and taut, the muscles braced as if in anticipation of a blow. She made her touch as soft as possible, tried to imagine soothing a frightened kitten. The skin warmed under her palms.
The succubus drew in a shuddering breath. Her scent changed, no longer alluring but tinged with metallic overtones. She curled on her side away from Lenore, and her hair fell across her face like a pall.
Lenore wrapped her arms around the succubus, not as a courtesan might embrace a lover or one woman might hold another, but as she might cradle a child. Some men might condemn her, for surely the succubus had taken many lives over the millennia of her existence. Lenore did not give such men the right to judge her, any more than she had once allowed them to brand her evil. She had long since made her peace with a life outside her father’s rigid morality.
She woke to find that the candles had burned into puddles of wax. Pale light sifted through the curtains. Her arms were empty.
The succubus stood beside the bed, a shadow among shadows, a tracery of silver against the dying night. Innumerable metallic threads circled her neck. From each one hung a pinpoint of ruby brightness.
To the faint chiming of chains, the succubus moved closer. This close to dawn, she was already dissolving like dew. She lifted her hands, colorless and nearly transparent, drew one of the chains over her head, and offered it to Lenore.
Fine as spider silk, the chain nestled in Lenore’s palm. The single ruby winked once, twice, in a double-timed rhythm.
The succubus said, “It is the heart of a man. I don’t know whose.”
“You steal hearts?”
A ghostly smile answered her. “I steal nothing. I collect what is offered to me by those for whom it no longer has any value. You may find a better use for it. I—I will not remember you in any other way, other than the absence of a heart I once possessed. You understand this? The oppression of so many hearts?”
How could anyone endure such a thing?
Lenore closed her fingers around the heart. She was not aware of closing her eyes, but when she opened them, she was alone.
The morning deteriorated under the weight of too many tasks, the return to her own quarters, the remainder of the packing, the note from Lord Robert expressing his profuse thanks, and finally the departure for the country. Lenore slept as much as the motion of the carriage would allow, which was considerably more rest than she would have found in a hired coach. She’d selected a traveling dress cut in unimpeachably conservative style and slightly too large, both for comfort and because it was less likely than most of her wardrobe to provoke an argument with her father.
Lenore woke when the coachman stopped to water the horses, and took the opportunity to walk about. She had spent so much of her adult life cultivating the interior landscape that the outdoors, even stables, battered water troughs, road mud and horse droppings, interested her. Lord Robert’s men behaved with impeccable politeness, but she knew how they saw her, a woman of flexible morals and powerful friends.
She returned to her seat after another such stop and took out the packet of letters. Her father’s was short and notable as much for what he did not say as for what he did. The older letters, though, the ones from her younger sister, sent without their father’s knowledge or leave…
The pages were cross-written and full of high spirits, for Elisabeth, the pampered baby of the family, had amused herself by falling in and out of love. At first, this latest infatuation had begun like the others in playful flirtation. Then Elisabeth’s descriptions shifted from fashionably extravagant to unadorned and poignant. In between her sister’s increasingly desperate belief in her lover’s fidelity, Lenore read the sad end to the adventure. He had tired of her. The dalliance was over. Poor Elisabeth, to be snared like this.
No one dies of a broken heart. However, despair could weaken an already compromised constitution. The family was not consumptive—Lenore herself had always enjoyed robust health—but other ailments could be just as deadly.
“She calls for you,” Sir Elward Hasland had written, and Lenore read in the crabbed script how much it had cost him to pen the next words: “Come home.”
She folded the letters, blinking at the gray-brown fields, and tried not to remember how he had thrown her out.
They traveled through the twilight and into the early hours of the evening, for the roads were good enough to navigate by lantern light. By the time they arrived at Hasland Hall, the horses were tired and hungry, as was Lenore herself.
The carriage clattered along the gravel-paved drive. There was the usual bustle of unloading and seeing to horses and men and tack. The household steward thawed enough to bid Lenore welcome.
“Your old room is ready for you, Miss. The master asks would you join him for sherry before dinner.”
“Thank you, Barrun. Please convey my respects to my father and tell him I will wait on his pleasure directly I have seen my sister.”
Lenore made her way up the stairs to the family quarters. The house dated from a more expansive time, when spacious chambers and the labor to keep them habitable had still been within the family’s means. Now she saw the traces of shabby gentility in the threadbare carpet, the empty sconces, and the pitting on the brass latch.
The door cracked open a few moments after she knocked. An elderly woman wearing the cap and gray serge dress of a nurse peered out. She carried a lit taper, its glow soft on the pleated skin of her face. Her eyes brightened.
“Miss Lenore! We did not look for you so soon!” Here at least was one member of the household who was happy to see her. The next moment, they were standing in the hallway, hugging each other as if nothing else mattered.
“My dearest Mrs. Talbot.” Lenore pulled away before she broke into tears. “My sister—?”
“Sleeping at last, poor lamb. The apothecary was here this afternoon and says she is very bad, very low indeed. He advised against bleeding her again—but it is not my place to say even that much. I plead an old woman’s errant tongue.”
“You have nothing with which to reproach yourself,” Lenore said. “I would a thousand times rather hear a harsh truth from you than a soothing falsehood from anyone else.”
“Ah, miss! You always were one for facing a problem squarely.”
“Indeed. Had I been born a son, I would have made a great career in the army. Now I’d like to see for myself how my sister fares.”
“Do not wake her,” Mrs. Talbot said as she handed the candle to Lenore. “She has been feverish these last three days.”
“I promise.” Lenore kissed the old woman’s cheek and then pushed the door open.
As a child, Elisabeth had exhibited a romantic predilection. Time had not tempered her taste. Every detail of furnishing, from the bed curtains to the dressing table with its mirror and blown-glass perfume bottles to the little writing desk, suggested a time long gone and a world that had never existed. Lenore felt as if she had strayed between the pages of her sister’s favorite novel. At any instant, an armored knight, handsome and chivalric, might come striding in, or a tousle-haired poet emerge, rose in hand, from behind the draperies.
The young woman propped up on those lace-trimmed pillows belonged to quite a different tale. At first glance, Lenore might not have recognized her sister, so thin and haggard was the sleeping girl.
No one dies of a broken heart.
Lifting the candle for the best angle of light, Lenore studied the sleeping form. The parched lips and hollows around the eyes could reasonably result from restless sleep and lack of appetite. The extreme pallor, on the other hand…
Elisabeth roused, whimpering, before falling back into fitful sleep. The nightgown had been laced so high, Lenore could not examine her sister’s neck without disturbing her. She circled the room, testing the latches on the windows. They were so stiff, she did not think she could open them. Then there was nothing to do but change for dinner.
One of the servants had unpacked Lenore’s trunk. Lenore selected a gown of soft, dark green wool with a high neckline. It had been made in Paris to her design so that she needed no help in putting it on.
She found her father in the drawing room, looking as if he had not left it since their last interview. He stood before the fireplace, jabbing the logs with a poker. The flames rushed up, bathing his face in a hectic glow. He whirled around, poker still in hand. The clock on the mantle ticked remorselessly. She curtseyed and waited for him to speak.
“So you’ve come home at last,” he said, and she wondered what he meant, for Mrs. Talbot had said they did not expect her so soon. At last…after all these years?
“Good evening, sir.”
“Well, then.” He held out his hand and she took it. She could not remember the last time they had touched.
She had thought him unchanged, but that had been an illusion. He looked more careworn than angry, as if he had sought to hold back the sorrows of the world with the force of his will, and had failed.
With a gesture, he indicated for her to precede him to the dining room. He had been waiting for her, then. The courtesy surprised her even more than had the offer of his hand. When they were seated and the soup course had been served, blessedly still hot, he inquired after her journey.
“It was well enough,” she answered. “The roads were dry and I am a hardy traveler.”
“Very little troubled you as a child.” He looked up, spoon half raised. “You’ve seen your sister, then?”
Lenore set down her own spoon. “Father, what ails her? You gave no details in your letter, but I did not expect to find her so very ill.”
“My own physician was at a loss to explain it. Oh, he babbled on about humours and fluxes. Nonsense, all of it! The apothecary, who has more sense than any ten doctors, bled her twice and, when that didn’t help, dosed her with laudanum. At least, my poor girl can now sleep. But what she will do, how she will fare, when it wears off…” He broke off as the servant removed the soup dishes and brought in the next course.
Lenore picked at her turbot, shoving the parsley garnish around her plate. “Is there any possibility her malady might be supernatural in origin?”
“What do you know about such things?”
At least he hadn’t raged at her for being gullible and superstitious. “I live in town. She wrote me of a”—lover, but Lenore would not use the word in front of her father—“an admirer. What do you know about him?”
He pushed away his fish plate. “Name’s Henri d’Ombrossa. Calls himself comte. She met him at a party at Lady Ellsworth’s, all frippery and dancing. You know your sister’s enthusiasm for such things. At the time, I thought it a harmless enough pastime.”
“Dancing is healthful exercise,” Lenore agreed. “D’Ombrossa…that’s an unusual surname.” By her tone, she implied it could be not his real name.
Her father paused in his chewing to consider. Clearly Comte Henri would not have been a suitable son-in-law under any circumstances, so his ancestry had until now been of no significance. Lenore found herself liking her father a great deal better. She said, “I gather that he has given her up, so it does not matter.”
The discussion ranged over a variety of topics but never Lenore’s profession. If this visit accomplished nothing else, the infinitesimal movement toward reconciliation would be worth it. She waited, therefore, until the cheese course had been served in the Continental manner and then taken away.
“You indicated that Comte Henri is a member of Lady Ellsworth’s set. I would like an introduction.” At her father’s sharp look, she added, “On my sister’s behalf. Perhaps nothing can be done, but I must ascertain that for myself.”
“He’s as worthless a piece of overbred foreign trumpery as ever walked beneath the sun, but I suppose you’ll not be content until you’ve seen him for yourself. As it happens, the lady has just sent over yet another of her invitations. It’s for tomorrow evening, although that’s likely insufficient time for you to finish your fripping or frilling or whatever ladies do to prepare for such things.”
“Tomorrow will suit me very well.”
“What does Lady Ellsworth think a man my age would do at such a gathering?” her father continued. “Prance about like a popinjay?”
“Perhaps she sees you as a suitor. I believe she remains a widow.”
He sighed, the faintest breath. “No one will ever take your mother’s place.”
Candlelight touched the ballroom at Ellsworth Manor with a creamy golden radiance, glinting on silk gowns, jewel-set rings glimpsed through lace cuffs, headdresses of peacock’s feathers, and brooches set low on porcelain bosoms. Music, sweet and temperate, summoned dancers to their places. Lenore watched them assemble, ladies on one side of the glittering hall, gentlemen on the other. A gesture and a nod divided them, ranks of soldiers on a battlefield.
And I, what am I? Spy…or assassin?
She resisted the impulse to touch the neckline of her gown, moiré silk that fell in chocolate folds until movement burnished it to gold. The chain was all but invisible, the ruby nestling between her breasts under the copper-thread embroidery. She lifted her chin, shifting her posture to display her figure to advantage, and studied the room. By some miscalculation on the part of Lady Ellsworth—herself leading the set on the arm of a youth so beautiful he must be a fay in human disguise—the number of ladies present exceeded that of the gentlemen, and more than one went without a partner.
“My dear Miss Elisabeth—”
The voice was smooth, quintessentially masculine, and so close that Lenore felt a whisper of breath on her neck. She recovered, turning to face him.
He was not tall, only a hand’s-breadth more than her own height, but something in his air, his carriage, the way the moon-pale velvet set off his shoulders and tapered waist, made him seem taller. He wore his hair a bit long for the current fashion, sweeping back from a widow’s peak in a torrent of ebony. By far his best feature was his eyes, so dark they seemed to be all pupil.
Her mouth went dry. He was too beautiful, too pale and deathly to be mortal. She dared not breathe for fear of what she might inhale, the lingering taint of the grave.
For the moment, she was in no danger. He would not dare an overt assault in this public gathering.
“I beg your pardon!” he exclaimed. “How impudent you must think me, when we have not been properly introduced! I mistook you for someone else.”
Lenore reached for words as a swordsman might draw his blade. Engage: “You are perhaps acquainted with my sister.”
My sister who is so ill, she barely recognized me this morning.
“You are remarkably alike, that same sweetness of countenance.”
Feint: “You have the advantage of me, sir.”
“Henri d’Ombrossa, comte, at your service.” Was there a hint of mockery in his bow? Had he already marked her for his next victim?
She responded with a precise courtesy. “You are French, then? You have almost no accent.” Riposte.
A flicker of light, perhaps a stray reflection of the candles, touched those dark eyes. “My name may be, but I am not. My family is an old one and I am far from my native soil.”
Invite: “Far from home? Do you then find England a trifle cold?”
His smile intensified the beauty of his pale features. “You are kind to ask. But no, I am never cold.”
No, you would not be. His tone implied that mere physical discomfort paled to insignificance in the presence of a lady such as herself. She wanted to slap him. Instead, she flicked her fan open as if she, too, found the room unpleasantly warm.
Redoublement: “That is fortunate, indeed, for the county abounds in large, drafty houses. One might hazard to say that any estate worth the price is so afflicted.”
“If by that, you mean to inquire if I have taken up residence in the neighborhood,” he said dryly, “and under what terms, then I must disoblige the lady’s curiosity.” He offered her his arm. “I detect the opening measures of My Lord Byron’s Maggot. May I have the honor?”
She allowed herself to be escorted to the floor. Now to lure him with a bit more flirtation, perhaps a stroll on the veranda or a tête-à-tête in a secluded corner…
The knot of matrons seated beyond the punch bowl were agog at her partner’s choice—she knew perfectly well what they must be saying about her. Out of the corner of her vision, she caught d’Ombrossa’s brief, conspiratorial wink.
Lenore was not often discomposed, but the audacity of his gesture confounded her momentarily. As a consequence, she missed a beat of the opening figure, one she knew by heart.
“Is aught amiss?” her dancing partner inquired. “Did I mistake your wish to dance as well as your identity?”
Disengage. The steps of the dance drew them apart, temporarily prohibiting further conversation, and when they came together again, there was no point in answering.
The closing bars of the dance, along with the requisite honors, granted her a moment in which to collect herself. D’Ombrossa moved to her side, perfect in his attendance upon her. His fingers enclosed hers, his skin as cool as silk. She allowed herself a half-smile and a murmured reference to the heat of the room and her own fatigue. This had the desired effect of a solicitous offer of wine punch. She allowed him to guide her to a sofa in the quietest corner of the salon. In his absence, she drew out the vial of holy water and loosened the stopper, then rearranged the folds of her skirt to cover it. Her hands trembled.
He might not be human—she was reasonably confident now that her initial suspicions were correct—but he was male, and she was not inexperienced. She found him attractive, but she had long ceased to be governed by every vaporish longing. Elisabeth would have found him irresistible.
He returned in a gratifyingly short time with a glass of punch and a plate of nut-studded pastries.
“You do not take refreshment?” She watched him over the gold-edged rim of her cup. The punch was overly sweet for her taste. “Or perhaps you do not care for wine?”
He brushed aside her question as if his only concern were her pleasure and not his own. Lenore set down the cup, still almost full. Her fingers curled around the vial. The glass was warm.
“Perhaps you are not yet sufficiently acquainted with the local custom,” she said, “or you would be sensible of the impropriety of paying court to a woman whose sister lies dangerously ill from your own cruelty.”
“I?” Although he did not smile, he sounded more amused than concerned. He did not, she noticed, deny that he was paying court to her. “I am sorry she is unwell, but that is not my fault.”
“No? I find it impossible to believe that you are not responsible for how you have treated her. Is it your nature to be heartless?”
D’Ombrossa’s expression hardened, the muscles of his jaw stark against the paleness of his cheek. “If I am heartless, I have good reason,” he replied in a voice so bleak that if Lenore had not been so outraged, she would have pitied him.
Greater harms than his had been healed, and hearts more grievously wounded had once regained their capacity for love. In the beds of her patrons, in their choked sobs, in the flood of their confessions, she had witnessed such transformation. She knew the pulse and rhythm of this dance. She was good at it, very good. Had she not wrung tears from a soulless succubus? If she could draw the poison of d’Ombrossa’s despair, could she not turn even one such as he from cruelty to compassion? Temptation swept through her, shaking her beyond the power of mere physical lust. She would not have him take up his courtship of her sister, but a word of kindness might do much to speed Elisabeth’s recovery.
What was she thinking? This was no man, but a monster every bit as evil as the succubus. More so, because he lacked any awareness of the suffering of his victims. His callousness had brought Elisabeth near to death.
It ends now!
Lenore dislodged the stopper and hurled the contents of the vial across his face.
He stared at her as the water dribbled over his expensive silk shirt and waistcoat. His mouth dropped open and his eyes blinked very fast. His chest rose and fell. The moon-pale velvet of his coat soaked up the liquid, turning dark.
Voices buzzed nearby. “Did you see—?”
“The Hasland girl—you know, that one—”
“Only to be expected—”
Sputtering, d’Ombrossa leapt to his feet. He looked as if he would strike her.
Not a suggestion of smoke curled from his drenched skin.
Lenore gaped at him, unable to understand why he had not burst into flames. He should be dust, ashes!
A manservant rushed up with an armful of towels. By the exclamations throughout the salon, Lady Ellsworth was even now being informed of the barbaric actions of one of her guests. D’Ombrossa snatched the topmost towel.
He was not a vampire. Yet how could he be anything else?
Sweet heaven, what have I done?
Before he could withdraw, Lenore scrambled to her feet. The glass vial clattered to the floor. She laid one hand on his arm. He startled, but her touch produced the desired effect. He whirled to face her.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean—I had no idea—” She drew herself up with what dignity she could muster. “I have made a terrible mistake and treated you abominably. Although I have no hope of your accepting it, I offer you my apology.”
He rubbed the towel over his eyes, leaving them reddened as if with long-unshed tears. How could she have been so stupid, so unfeeling? He had spoken the truth when he said he had good reason for behaving in a heartless manner. His own had been stolen.
Her hand fluttered to the neckline of her gown where the ruby heart lay. The gem had once been the heart of a man like him. Perhaps this very one—no, that was unlikely. The succubus was millennia old.
What if she offered it to him? Would it magically fuse with his flesh, with his very soul? Would he then regain a human heart, one capable of human feeling?
“Madam, I take my leave of you.” He bowed to her, back straight and toes precisely turned out.
“Sir, if you will come this way.” The manservant with the towels gestured toward a door at the back of the salon, likely to a chamber where he might dry himself and change into fresh garments, whatever could be provided by the hostess. As Lenore stood, dazed and immobile, the two men departed.
The air turned thick and the voices fell into silence. In the ballroom, the dance had ended and the dancers were dispersing. The musicians put up their instruments for a recess.
She must not let him get away. In a few minutes, if she knew anything about men, he would have forgotten the cause of the incident and his barbaric treatment of a gentle young lady. He would remember only the ill-mannered behavior of a woman of low repute. If she were to wrest any good from the confrontation, she must act now. She bolted after him.
Beyond the tastefully muted colors of the salon, the servants’ corridor closed around her like a mining tunnel, dark and airless. Her heart felt as if it were flinging itself against her ribs. There were no lights, only the flicker of a hand-held candle as it disappeared through the doorway at the far end. The door swung closed, but not before Lenore had marked its direction and distance. She fumbled for the latch, jerked it free, and pulled the door open. Beyond lay a staircase and a second, shorter hall, lit dimly from a doorway at the end. She headed for it.
A few moments later, Lenore burst in on a pair of maidservants, sitting a rough table and taking their ease over a late supper. A single candle, tallow rather than beeswax, sat beside a second, unlit. The younger of the two maids scrambled to her feet, chair legs scraping over the bare floor.
“Oh, madam!” Even in the poor light, the girl’s pock-marked face darkened in surprise.
“I am sorry to intrude,” Lenore murmured. “Have you seen a rather wet and extremely vexed gentleman pass this way?”
Lenore rushed back the way she had come, to the sound of smothered laughter. Of course! D’Ombrossa would not be taken to a servant’s room, he’d be given the best guest quarters where he could repair his attire and recover his composure.
The stairs were steeper and narrower than she was accustomed to. She stepped on her hem a couple of times before bunching up her skirts in both hands. What an idiot she’d been, first delaying and then taking the wrong way, the easy way!
The top of the stairs came into view. She pushed through the door and stumbled out into another hallway. By its lit candles, richly patterned carpet runner and faint smell of wood polish, this one was clearly part of the family living areas. All the doors leading from it were closed.
Lenore muttered some extremely indecorous words under her breath. If she had to check each one, so be it. She ran her hands over her gown to restore it to some semblance of order, strode to the nearest door, and placed her ear against it.
What if he were inside but alone? Would she be able to hear his breathing, the soft rustle of garments, perhaps the splash of bathing water? With her luck, he might be sitting utterly still, silently plotting his revenge.
Her fingers closed around the latch. What did she have to lose if it were the wrong room? She’d already destroyed her small pretense to polite society.
The door cracked open, oiled hinges moving soundlessly. She peered at the darkened interior for a moment before withdrawing.
Lenore startled as the third door on the opposite side opened and the manservant came out, no longer carrying his armful of towels. Without any sign he’d noticed her, he turned in the opposite direction. When he disappeared around a corner, she was able to breathe again.
This time, she did not bother to knock. She had seen enough unclothed men, many of them nowhere as comely, to be beyond prudery.
Light from a bank of candelabra filled the room. The furnishings followed the style of a decade ago, so this room must have seen little use. D’Ombrossa stood before a clothes frame, his jacket and waistcoat laid over its bars, his shirt a sodden heap at his feet. His bare skin gleamed like ivory. He held a dry small-shirt, scowling as if uncertain how to put it on by himself.
When he saw her, the scowl increased. “You again! What are you, a harpy bent on tormenting me? Are you not content with half-drowning me, but must dog my very footsteps?”
“You said you had good reason to be heartless. Someone, some woman, stole your heart.”
“If so, what business is it of yours?” He shifted, subtly accentuating the width of his shoulders, the muscled contours of his chest. Here was a man sure of his sexual appeal, of his masculine power. His scent tinged the air, daring her to desire him.
Under her fingertips, the thread of gold tingled. The chain lifted easily over her head. In the brilliance of the candles, the ruby heart pulsed so fast it glittered.
One corner of his mouth twisted, marring the beauty of his features. “What is this? A love-offering?”
“It is a heart.” She took a step toward him as she might approach a frightened horse. “It can be yours. I offer it to you as a gift. Take it and be whole again. Love as you once did.”
He lashed out with the small-shirt, snapping it like a whip. The edge caught the ruby and ripped the chain from Lenore’s hands.
“You sentimental cow! Why would I—or any man of sense—ever want to feel again? Should I seek to wallow in agony and degradation? I’ll have nothing to do with it or you! Get out!” When Lenore hesitated, he added, “And take your bauble with you!”
The ruby gleamed, nestled in the rumpled linen. She snatched it up and fled, too numb to feel defeat.
I’ve failed, she thought, rocking with the motion of the carriage on her way home. How could she tell Elisabeth what had happened? It would be unspeakably unkind to relate d’Ombrossa’s reaction. Yet how could she say nothing, or worse yet, lie? Elisabeth would expect a report. She would cling to every word as a morsel of hope.
May he rot in hell!
Lenore touched the tiny jewel where it hung once again around her own neck. It came to her, a thought quite unexpected, that d’Ombrossa had no need for hell, for he would carry it within him wherever he went. The thought pleased her in a sad way.
They had almost reached the modest gate of Hasland House. A light shone from Elisabeth’s window, as Lenore knew it would. There was no help for it. She must go up to her sister. At least she had a sister, and Elisabeth had her, and that was no small cause for gratitude. She might even have a portion of a father’s love as well.
Elisabeth was sitting up, wrapped in a thick knitted shawl and reading by the light of the fire. Poetry, Lenore assumed as Elisabeth set the book aside. Elisabeth looked up with a half-smile. Her skin, when Lenore kissed her cheek, felt cool.
“As you see, I am much better,” Elisabeth said. “I am heartily ashamed at having put my family to so much trouble. You came home! Father told me—he’s actually speaking your name again!”
Lenore settled herself on the footstool, basking in the unexpected barrage of words.
Elisabeth lowered her gaze. “I always did chatter on, didn’t I?”
“Yes, love, you did.”
“Then you must talk. How was your journey? And how did you pass this evening?”
“Well enough.” They were dancing around the unspoken question like fencers unwilling to commit. Lenore’s nerves still rankled from the encounter on the dance floor. “I’ve come from Lady Ellsworth’s.”
Elisabeth folded her hands in her lap. Lenore saw the book was not poetry but a history of the lives of the saints.
The moment stretched on, overlong. Elisabeth said in a small voice, “He will not see me. You could not change his mind.”
“I could not change his heart.”
“He has none, or he would not have behaved as he did. And even if—even if he came back to me, if he became everything I thought I wanted, how could I trust him not to leave me again?”
Lenore slipped the ruby heart over her head, searching for the right words. “Do you—” she began, but Elisabeth cut her off with uncharacteristic force.
“Do not rebuke me with his unworthiness! I do not want to know! It doesn’t matter! My own behavior has been no better, wailing after a lover who existed only in my own fevered imagination! I simpered and sighed and gave every indication of perishing for love, just like the lady in the poem. But we don’t die from broken hearts, do we?”
“I have never seen it so,” Lenore said. Elisabeth swayed and put a trembling hand to her cheek. The book slid to the floor. “Come, you have sat up long enough. You must rest.”
Elisabeth allowed herself to be helped back to bed. Lenore plumped the pillows and smoothed the coverlet the way their nurse had done when they were children. Elisabeth grasped her hand. “Stay with me a while longer. Just a little while.”
Lenore kicked off her slippers and settled herself on the bed. Elisabeth nestled against her side. In the fireplace, embers tumbled into ashes with a hush. The room fell quiet except for the breathing of the two sisters.
“Do you want to know what changed my mind? Why I decided to live?” Elisabeth whispered, as if they were children again, sharing secrets.
“Since your—since d’Ombrossa—had no part in it, I admit to being curious. I doubt such a resolve was inspired by the lives of the saints.”
Elisabeth giggled. “No. That was only to put me to sleep. You had something to do with it.”
“I? You were asleep when I arrived, and too ill to speak with me earlier today.”
“After you left, Father raged for a six-month. With each new report, his temper worsened. I didn’t think he’d ever let you in the door again.”
“Neither did I.”
“Or that you would come if he asked.”
Until now, I would not have. I would have let the old tyrant stew in his own venom.
“But he did ask,” Elisabeth went on, her voice now soft and sweet as a child’s. “And you came.”
She looked up into Lenore’s face. The fire had fallen away, leaving only the glow of the embers. “Don’t you understand? He asked, he swallowed his anger and his pride—and you came, you set aside all the terrible things he’d said—out of love for me.”
“I know it isn’t the same as the love of a man for a woman,” Elisabeth said in that quiet, sure voice. “You can cover it with bitterness and quarreling, but it never goes away. Someday, I’ll be able to love someone else and not care if he loves me back. Until then…” Her body softened and her head sank into the pillow. “…this is enough.”
The dying fire was suddenly too bright. Lenore closed her eyes. The warmth of her sister’s body seeped into her own. Around her, the familiar old house settled into the night. She could almost hear the breathing of the other sleepers, Barrun, Mrs. Talbot, the horses in the stables, the owls in the trees, the badgers in their dens. Her father, who had given it all back to her in the only way he could.
She wondered if she would ever leave this place again, or ever want to.
Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight, (and the omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels), and short stories in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy and Star Wars: Tales from Jabba’s Palace. Now under her birth name, Ross, she has written an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. Her collection Azkhantian Tales includes four short stories set in that world. Book View Cafe also offers her nonfiction Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life and a number of her stand-alone short stories.