Narcise drew in the fresh, cool air and felt the tears gather in her eyes. Free. I'm free.
It was well into the night, and Paris lay beyond her, around her...waiting for her. Paris, and the world...all of it, waiting for her.
Yes, she'd been out of the apartments many times in the years of living here...but this was different.
This time, she didn't have to go back. This time she wasn't accompanied by the insidious darkness of her brother, whose presence clung so heavily even when he was absent.
This time she was walking, on her own two feet, instead of being transported in a dark vehicle with guards.
"Are you coming with me?" said Woodmore in an impatient voice. "Or are you going to stand here and wait for them to catch up to us?"
"With you," she managed to say, terrified at the thought, as he grabbed her arm and began to walk off briskly.
He had her clutched to his side, a bare-chested, battered man towing along a slender effeminate partner. At least, that was what she thought they might look like. And, apparently, even such an appearance wasn't remarkable enough to glean notice from anyone else.
"Where are we going?" she asked, still drinking in the air, the activity of people walking and talking and laughing. There were women smiling slyly, with red lips and very low bodices...there were lanky youths watching from the shadows...there were couples, strolling arm in arm as if they had nowhere to be...and no one to escape from.
A group of the emperor's soldiers wandered past, leaving Narcise to wonder if they knew their master was several feet below them, eating and drinking with a vampir.
"I don't bloody damn know, but wherever it is, we don't have time to dawdle," Woodmore replied. "Nothing went as I planned."
There were smells, too...lovely smells of spring flowers on the breeze, and fragrances from some of the well-dressed (and not so well-dressed) women strolling by. She scented sausages and cheese and wine and ale, cakes and bread and crepes all offered for the late-night patrons. A rolling lust for a cake, iced with cream, surprised her. She hadn't had a sweet-or at least, hadn't enjoyed one like that-since she was a girl in Romania. And beyond the food, there was the underlying stench of sewer and refuse, the damp and algae of the Seine, coal and wood smoke, and blood.
The bloodscent was coming most strongly from the man next to her, mingling with sweat and burned flesh, and it teased her...for it had been some while since she'd fed.
A blonde woman wearing a long, simple dress was standing near one of the columns along the Tuilieries. She seemed oblivious to the passersby who jostled through the narrow walkway beneath the covered promenade, bumping into or next to her.
She was watching them closely, but her calm gaze wasn't unsettling in its intensity. Instead, Narcise felt a wave of peace slip over her as their eyes met. The woman smiled as Woodmore fairly dragged her past and the Mark on Narcise's back twinged painfully. It surprised her, for Luce hardly ever expressed his annoyance with her. Perhaps because she never had much chance to make a choice that would annoy him.
The first step. Those words rang in her head and Narcise smiled to herself as she happened to meet the blonde woman's eyes. She nodded at her, although of course there was no possible way the woman could know why she was nodding. But, yes, this was only the beginning.
It occurred to her, then, as Woodmore snapped his hand at a hackney cab-then decided not to climb aboard when a well-dressed gentleman pushed his way ahead of them-that she didn't have anywhere to go herself. She had no money. She knew no one-an uncomfortable memory pinched her belly and she thrust away the thought of someone she did know-and didn't know whom to trust.
But then a name did appear in her mind. Dimitri, the earl, in London. Cezar hated the man ever since he ended a business association with him when Dimitri learned that Cezar was a child-bleeder. And...there'd been that night in Vienna, when Cezar had offered Narcise to Dimitri.
Although she'd been dull with pain from a feather bracelet, Narcise still remembered that night...the cold, dark man who looked at her with a modicum of sympathy, but not even a flicker of lust.
She would go to him. Any enemy of Cezar was a friend of hers.
But in her fantasies, when she'd planned to make her escape, it was much less chaotic. Narcise had imagined a scenario in which she'd slipped from the house with a bag on her shoulder when the place was quiet and everyone was sleeping or otherwise distracted. Or that she'd be standing over Cezar's headless body saying a fond farewell as his blood coursed onto the floor.
Just as Woodmore said: Not as planned.
But, nevertheless, it had worked.
"Here," he said suddenly, towing her into a shadowy alcove.
The next thing she knew, they were at the backside door of a small public house that smelled of old ale and stewing meat, and Woodmore was negotiating in rapid French with its proprietor. He flashed that white smile, made a lewd gesture and then produced a small pouch that clinked-which she swore he hadn't had moments earlier.
The pouch's contents seemed to be the deciding factor for the proprietor, and the door opened wider. She felt the man's amused grin on her as Woodmore led her inside and then directly up a set of dark, dingy stairs where the smell of coitus and ale clung to the walls. She wasn't certain whether the proprietor recognized that she was a woman and not a man, but in either case, it didn't matter.
After all, this was Paris.
And the recently liberated Narcise had no qualms about following the vampir hunter into a small bedchamber lit only by the glow of a lamp.
"Shut the door," Woodmore ordered, and when she turned back, she saw that he'd sat on the bed.
For the first time, she noticed how much difficulty he seemed to have breathing. His torso and arms were a mass of cuts, bruises and large burns. "You're hurt, what-"
"You just noticed this?" His voice was harsh. He seemed to struggle for a moment, then added in marginally softer tones, "I need to get cleaned up. They're going to bring a bath."
Even his sharp words didn't offend Narcise. She was free. Nothing would upset or annoy her now. Yet, she felt that she owed him some explanation. "It was the only way to get him to allow us to fight."
"And how precisely would fighting have helped us if one of us was dead? Or did you simply plan to kill me-but then how would that benefit you?" His voice was rough and unsteady.
"I didn't expect him to make us fight till the death. I thought I would allow you to win, and then you would take me to...well, it doesn't matter now, does it? We are here, and I'm free. Thank you. Do you need food? And where did you get the money? Surely you didn't have it in your breeches all this time."
"I venture to guess that such a bulge would have been noticeable," he said, flashing a surprise smile. "At least, in certain places. I lifted the coins from the sot who stole our hack. He'll never miss them, and I can't draw on my resources until tomorrow."
She'd walked over to turn the light up and by then, a knock sounded on the door. She opened it to reveal a maidservant with a jug of ale and a platter of cheese and bread. The girl brought it in, put it on a table, then turned to the cold fireplace.
"I don't believe they have your particular vintage," Wood-more said, gesturing to the food.
Narcise nodded, and realized again that it had been more than a few days since she'd fed, and with the hint of his bloodscent-just barely oozing-still lingering, her gums began to contract and her breathing roughened. Her glance went briefly toward the maidservant and she considered the possibility of enthralling the girl so she could feed, but when she felt Woodmore's eyes on her, she discarded that idea.
If he was like any other man, he'd enjoy the erotic sight of two women in such an intimate arrangement, and then she'd have another problem on her hands if he wanted to participate. The last thing she wanted or needed was another man trying to control her-or to have her bloodlust take over. Woodmore might be a mortal, but he was a legendary one in her world. He wouldn't be easily denied.
She turned her attention away from him and back to the fact that she would have to find a way to feed. She'd never actually had to arrange it for herself; Cezar had always, as part of her captivity, provided a servant-a male as often as a female-or other mortal for feeding.
But this was a problem she welcomed.
A fire now blazing in the grate, the maid stood and gave a short bow, then left the chamber.
Woodmore had taken a few swigs of ale, and was selecting a piece of cheese when he looked up at Narcise. He didn't speak, although he seemed to be searching for something to say...and then he returned his attention to the tray. She realized she was trying not to breathe, for the chamber-especially the bed-reeked of coitus and perspiration, and over it all was Chas Woodmore's scent. His blood.
Narcise suddenly felt awkward and out of place. And, all at once, exhausted. Her knees wobbled and as her head spun, she reached blindly for the chair and eased herself into it.
But she was free. A smile erupted, happiness welled inside her so much that her Mark twinged again...and suddenly, tears flooded her eyes. The tears rolled down her cheeks, catching her by surprise-she hadn't even realized she still knew how to cry-but all at once, she was sobbing uncontrollably.
A handkerchief was thrust into her face, and she took it blindly, gratefully-and at the same time, ashamedly. She'd been through so much...why, now when she was happy, did she have to show such weakness?
The cloth smelled like Woodmore, of course, but dense and thick-rough with blood and sweat and pain and the pleasant smell of his skin and hair, too. She dried her eyes and lifted her face to find him watching her with a detached expression. "Thank you."
"I have three sisters," he replied with a shrug. "Sobbing females don't unsettle me in the least. And I suspect you have more of a reason to cry than Angelica did when her favorite yellow gown was stained with ink."
Narcise gave him a wavery smile and wiped her nose again. "I cannot remember the last time I cried," she told him. Not even ten years ago.
Another knock came at the door, and Woodmore answered it this time. She noticed the way his feet scuffled a bit when he went to open it, as if he could hardly lift them. He held on to the door while a half-full tub was brought in, followed by five huge pails of steaming water, and she suspected that he was doing so in order to keep his own knees from collapsing. There was a drawn tightness in his face and around his eyes.
But now that she'd become fully aware of his scent, Narcise found herself noticing his bare torso, half illuminated by the glow of the lamp. He was tall and the skin of his chest and ridged belly was as dark as that of his hands and face. He had dark hair trailing down his stomach, into the sagging waistline of his breeches, and up to a full expanse of it over his chest. His arms were rounded with muscle, scarred and marked, but powerful nevertheless.
Her eyes started to heat when she thought about the texture of his skin and the essence of his lifeblood, and she had to look away. It was a reaction she couldn't completely control, but she could hide it, for it didn't mean anything.
After the water came the maidservant who'd brought the food, and this time she was carrying a pile of cloth and a small pot of unguent. These she left near the bath, and Narcise realized it was for Woodmore's injuries.
When the door was closed once more, and they were alone, Woodmore turned to her. He seemed even more unsteady, and she thought he actually swayed on his feet. "I don't expect you have delicate sensibilities, but if you do, you'll either have to leave or close your eyes."
"I don't have anywhere else to go," she said quietly.
He gave her an inscrutable look and turned away. And then all of a sudden, he made a sort of half turn, as if to grab for the chair, and he began to sink.
She heard him groan a low curse just before he hit the floor with a dull thud.
Narcise rushed over to kneel next to him on the ground. "Woodmore?" she said, and went to shake him by the shoulders...but stopped when she realized that would mean closing her fingers over two ugly burns.
She saw the red oozing from his arms and the sides of his torso, recognizing Cezar's handiwork with the metal spikes, and wondered how he'd managed to do what he'd done-fight her, carry her, run and slay and even pick a pocket-with these sorts of injuries.
At the same time, she felt a wave of remorse that she hadn't noticed how badly he was hurt during their fencing match. Of course, she had been a bit distracted...but she should have at least gauged his weakness as her rival if nothing else.
"Woodmore!" she said more urgently, still hesitant to touch him. But when he still didn't move, she had to, and was shocked to find his skin flaming hot. He moaned, rolling his head to the side as her fingers brushed over his shoulders.
He couldn't remain on the floor. Narcise picked him up awkwardly-he was long and loose-limbed, and heavy even for her-and got him to the bed. And then she began examining him in detail.
She'd had enough injuries of her own, inflicted by Cezar or any number of his friends, to recognize all of the different manifestations of burns, piercings, cuts and bruises. She'd also had some experience in caring for them, although she wasn't certain whether washing and cleaning injuries on mortals would even help, since they could die from injury and she, of course, wouldn't.
But she did the best she could, using the warm water and the dubiously clean cloths that had been brought in with the unguent to wash away blood, sweat and grime. Narcise even immodestly stripped away his breeches, leaving him fully naked, so that she could examine him for other wounds. A particularly nasty one, which had been hidden by the trousers near his right hip, had her sucking in her breath in alarm.
Even in the faulty light, she could see that whatever had gone through his skin, and out the other side, had taken the fabric of his breeches with it like a needle and thread. The injury was rough and dark, and little frayed threads and pieces of cloth decorated the opening.
And it smelled. They all smelled of course, but this one had a wrong scent to it. An ugly, thick, roiling sort of stench that was so unpleasant it didn't arouse her bloodlust, even as undernourished as she was, and succeeded in masking some of the other enticing scents as well. She cleaned it carefully, probing to get the remnants of thread and wool from inside, and knew she was doing a good job when he flinched and moaned in his fever. But the injury would bear watching, for it might not heal at all.
The rest of them, ugly as they were, evil and dark, were painful but should heal. This one on his hip...perhaps not.
By the time she finished, the sun was rising and casting yellow beams through the window. Dangerous to Narcise, but at the same time, she hadn't seen the sun for more than a decade.
So she stood at the window, carefully to the side, and watched as the golden glow painted the rooftops and buildings clustered around this dingy little public house-so crude and dirty and simple compared to her previous residence, but so welcome.
She couldn't see much aside of the walls across the street and down the alley, for the buildings were close, but just the glint of yellow made her chest expand with pleasure.
No, she couldn't walk out into it, she couldn't bathe herself in its rays nor pick flowers on the mountainside as she'd done with Rivrik...but at least now she could see it. And she could smell the warmth as the beams baked the edge of the cotton bedding or heated the wood of the window shutters.
And perhaps...if she were brave...she could walk out into it with a cloak over her head and shoulders, thus allowing the rays to seep through and warm her through the shield.
She watched from the window for a long while, simply observing the way the shadows changed, shortening and then disappearing, and then beginning to fall toward the east...how the light changed the scene of busy Paris, the carriages and barouches, the merchant carts and the shops' awnings from dull shades of gray to every color imaginable.
She was weak and hungry still, but she couldn't leave in search of someone on whom to feed. And she couldn't go down to the public room of the house and lure someone up here...could she?
So Narcise ignored the insistent waves of weakness and light-headed moments and watched from the window, wishing for her paints or at least a pencil.
When Woodmore groaned, drawing her attention from the scenery, she went to his side. He opened his eyes, but they were dull and feverish, and his skin was still hot despite the fact that the fire had long subsided into glowing coals.
The water from the basin was cool, and she used it to dab at his forehead, uncertain what else could be done for him. His glassy gaze didn't seem to be able to focus, and his lids fluttered as he moaned and muttered things she couldn't understand.
Narcise felt a stirring of panic when she checked the worst of the wounds again and saw that it was puffy and foul-smelling still. The blood crusting and oozing, its edges stank and she knew something had to be done, or the infamous vampir hunter would die-and in such an inglorious fashion.
At first, she simply didn't know what to do. She couldn't leave during the day to go in search of a physician, nor did she have any funds to pay for one. The pouch he'd lifted from the nabob who'd taken their hack was empty.
And aside of that, she was feeling weary and nauseated herself, from lack of feeding and sleep.
Very deep inside her, Narcise was also terrified that if she left this sanctuary, Cezar or his men would find her and take her back to the hell she'd been living.
She looked at Woodmore, who, despite his fever and the shuddering breaths he was taking, still appeared capable and intimidating-even with his eyes closed. He was so dark and exotic looking next to the undyed linen sheets, his overlong, thick hair tumbling over his forehead and clinging to his neck from the heat of his skin. But his face was tight and flushed and his pulse thumped erratically, its sound seeming to fill her ears.
But...she had to do something.
She was a Dracule, she had the ability to enthrall even if she couldn't go out in the daylight. How foolish of her to waste time when she did have the means to do what had to be done!
It had been so long since she'd been on her own, making her own decisions. Much more than a century. Still, to have stayed hidden and helpless like a trembling rabbit was not admirable in the least.
Unwilling to leave Woodmore alone for too long, she rang for one of the servants. A young woman came and Narcise gave her instructions in her imperfect French: she needed a physician immediately for her companion.
Then, assuring herself that Woodmore would sleep-if not restlessly-for a bit longer, she left the chamber quickly. Down the back stairwell she went, and then into the public room where it was crowded with people, noise and smells. Smoke and sweat were strong enough here to gag her, along with the layer of stale ale and old wine and a myriad of other aromas.
Nervously she looked about and settled her attention on an old, fat man who was waddling unsteadily toward the door. He was well-dressed and clumsy with drink.
Narcise, who was thankful to still be dressed as a boy, kept her face averted and hoped not to draw attention as she made her way to meet her unsuspecting mark. At the door, which fortunately led into a small alcove to keep the snow and rain from pouring into the pub itself, she met up with the fat man. He was irritable, which made her feel even more justified in drawing him into a bit of her thrall whilst she relieved him of the wallet he held under his coat.
It was done more quickly and easily than she'd even imagined, and Narcise, flush with funds and a different sort of confidence that had nothing to do with swordsmanship or even her beauty, slipped back up to the chamber she shared with Woodmore. She would feed later, after she'd seen to Chas, and when she could find a more private place.
But that incident seemed to be the most optimistic part of the day. When the physician arrived, he spoke French too rapidly for her to completely understand...yet the idea that Woodmore was in dangerous condition became very clear.
Narcise watched as the docteur used a sharp knife to cut into the swollen and infected wound, then scooped away the foul-smelling green pus that erupted from it. He cleaned it and wrapped it and gave her a list of instructions that was only partly clear...and then he left, taking a good portion of the fat man's money with him.
Not long after he left, a knock sounded at the door, drawing Narcise's attention abruptly from her patient. She quickly covered Woodmore with a sheet and then bade the servant to enter.
It was a young man who'd come to collect the tub and pails. He looked at Narcise, who'd just taken her hair down and whose shirt still clung to her body curves, and she saw a flare of interest in his eyes before he turned to gather up the items.
Her heart began to thump harder and her gums constricted. No, not here...but why not? It's more private than belowstairs.
She swallowed hard and tried to ignore her increasing light-headedness and the gnawing in her stomach.
"Could you build up the fire again?" she asked, hearing the duskiness in her own voice. "It's chilly in here."
"Certainly, madame," he replied, and set the pails on the ground. His gaze lingered as he walked past her, and she felt a little nudge in her center.
He doesn't know what it is you want.
She bit her lip, trying to keep from scenting the young man, who was lanky and blond and had an alluring, masculine scent laced with innocence. He couldn't be much older than twenty.
But yes. A streak of pain flamed over her shoulder and down the side of her back and Narcise gasped. The sudden filling and pulsing of her Mark was like a branding iron of Lucifer's temper. "Madame?" the youth asked, turning from the fireplace to look at her in concern.
"What is your name?" she asked, breathless with pain...and anticipation.
"Philippe," he said, and she felt her eyes warm into a strong warm glow.
"Philippe," she replied, stepping closer to him. "There is something else you could assist me with."
His breathing changed, deepening and slowing, as her eyes burned into him. Oh, yes. Narcise's fangs erupted swiftly and she could scarcely breathe.
"Will you?" she asked, holding out her hand. Her heart beat savagely in her breast, and she could smell his desire, his interest wafting through the air.
He stepped toward her, his eyes heavy-lidded and his mouth full and sensual. "What is it?" he asked.
She could wait no longer; hunger and need drove her and she fairly flung herself at him. His arms went around her, his fingers pulling at her shirt, but she had hold of his shoulders and slammed her fangs into his flesh.
His gasped mon Dieu rang in her ears as the flood of ambrosia poured into her mouth. Narcise clung to his shoulders as she forced him back against the wall, drinking and leeching from his warm, youthful flesh. His hands moved over her, pulling at her clothes, dragging the shirt up over her back so he could touch her skin.
She felt the rise and swell of his cock against her, and the soft moans from the back of his throat as she swallowed and sucked deep drafts of lifeblood. Pleasure and arousal, along with strength, rushed through her. Her breasts tightened, becoming sensitive behind their loosened bindings. Damp and heat pounded through her as she licked and drank, the young coppery blood filling her mouth. His chest rose and fell against her breasts, and his hands moved around to cover them, sliding down over tight nipples to the swelling center between her legs, frantic and desperate for his own release.
Narcise might have gone on for too long if there hadn't been a dull noise from behind her. The thump brought her back to the moment, to where she was, what she was doing...and that she and her victim had sagged into a heap on the floor, his hands tearing at her breeches.
She pulled her fangs away, breathing as if she'd been running, and felt her partner-for he wasn't precisely a victim-shuddering against her. He muttered something low and desperate in her ear, grinding the bulge in his trousers against her hip as his mouth found hers. He was sloppy and warm, and the taste of his own blood must have excited him, for he pulled her closer, urgent and needy.
Narcise twisted her face away and returned to his shoulder to lick at the bitemarks she'd left there. It made the wounds heal quickly and cleanly, and helped the blood to stop flowing.
As she pulled back, a glance behind her indicated Chas Woodmore, completely naked and wavering on his feet, clutching the bed as if he were about to pitch over any moment. The feverish light was in his eyes, but determination tightened his face, and she saw that he held a piece of splintered wood in his hand.
Their eyes met across the room, and she recognized horror and revulsion burning there...and yet an underlying layer of lust that was echoed in the lift of his own cock.
Her insides jolting in surprise and something else she didn't understand, Narcise turned away and pulled herself and her victim to his feet. He sagged against her and she propped him against the wall with one hand, much stronger now that she'd been nourished, and yanked his sagging breeches back up into place. His cock still filled them out, but she had no interest in this young, lanky man. The image of another male body-mature, muscled and powerful-had lodged in her mind.
Yet, the blind lust had eased and she was back inside her own control-if not fully aware of Chas Woodmore in a completely different way. Another dull thump had her attention swiveling back to the vampir hunter, even as she restrained Philippe's enthusiastic and insistent hands. Wood-more had managed a step or two, then collapsed once again.
Narcise turned her thrall back onto Philippe with new intent, and coaxed him into her world. This time, she lulled him into a dreamlike state that would eliminate from his memory everything that had happened since she turned her thrall on him.
When she finally released him, he was back in front of the fireplace and she was sitting in the chair just as she had been. Woodmore, whose gaze burned in its own mortal fashion as he dragged himself back to his feet, had sunk weakly back onto the bed in a feverish stupor.
"Merci," she told Philippe as he gathered up the pails and tub. The marks on his neck were hidden by his shirt, and hadn't left even a drop of blood on the pale linen. "Would you be so kind as to bring a new bath?"
"But of course, madame," he said, his eyes still a bit feverish...as if he couldn't quite remember what had happened, but sensed that something had.
She smiled at him and gave a little flare of glow in her eyes, then sent him on his way.
Then she turned her attention to Woodmore. His breathing was off rhythm, rough and ragged, and if anything his skin had become hotter. His cock had softened back into a relaxed state, and his eyes remained half open but unfocused.
Narcise's trill of panic returned and she looked again at the wound on his hip. It was likely causing the fever. The swelling around it, and the stench... The physician had helped, but the smell told her that he'd not been able to stop the infection.
And then a thought struck her. It was so unexpected, and yet so logical she could hardly believe it hadn't occurred to her before.
If there was bad blood there, gathering and clotting around the wound...she could take it away. She could draw the infection from him, and then use her lips and tongue to cleanse and heal in their own effective way.
It could work.
And, she thought, swallowing hard as she looked down at his tight, battered body...it would give her an excuse to taste him.
Something she hadn't realized how much she wanted.