Giordan Cale found a way to visit Narcise three more times during her brother's absence in Marseilles. Each time, he took her by surprise, each event was carefully planned and executed, and each time, he remained at a physical distance from her-despite the fact that she could feel the heat and desire between them the moment he walked into the chamber.
If he was trying to prove his trustworthiness to her, he was succeeding. If he was trying to breach the walls around her protected heart, his attempt was formidable.
Although she didn't fully understand why Cale was so intent that Cezar not know of their meetings-after all, he'd been instrumental in that first night they spent together in The Chamber-Narcise didn't argue, nor did she attempt to make their liaisons open. Instead she found herself growing more and more enamored with him, with his sense of humor and element of levity, and more and more desirous of tearing off his clothes and kissing him.
When she thought about what it would be like to cover those warm lips with hers, to taste a bit of lifeblood if she nipped one of them, mingling with their lips and tongues...to have their bodies lined up, mouth to mouth, breast to breast, hip to hip...Narcise could hardly imagine why she'd resisted so far.
But kissing, in her mind, was the last frontier of intimacy. The one thing that she could control; the thing that the men who wanted her body didn't particularly care about. Kissing, which was often the first stage of love and lust-and had been for her and Rivrik-was now the last step for her, and one she guarded jealously.
When Cezar arrived from his travels, he called her to his private parlor within hours. As he always did when they met alone, he had a tray of three brown sparrow feathers sitting on the table next to him. They were close enough to sap her strength, yet far enough away that she could talk and move, albeit a bit more slowly than usual. But most of all, they were a deterrent to her getting close enough to attack him.
He'd made that mistake once, fifty years ago. One thing about Cezar-he had absolute attention to detail, and a long memory.
"You look well, dear sister," he said, his eyes scoring her. He didn't appear pleased, but then, he never particularly did. "How have you been amusing yourself during my absence?"
"Other than fending off the hot-breathed stink of your friend Belial, nothing out of the ordinary," Narcise replied flatly, selecting a seat as far from the feathers as possible. Already, her body felt slower and heavier, and her lungs tight and constricted.
"Belial?" Cezar's face tightened, and for a moment, she felt a notch of pity for her brother. To believe that one of his most trusted allies and servants-for no one was a confidant of Cezar Moldavi-would betray him and his trust in that way was a blow to his carefully controlled world. "He attempted to touch you?"
Narcise gave a particularly unladylike snort. "He went further than that, dear brother," she said with a sarcasm-laden voice. "He wore a ring of feathers around his wrist one day when he came to deliver some wine to me, and attempted to convince me that I should allow him to feed on me." The tremor was more from anger than anything like fear; Belial was a make, and she could squash him like a bug if he didn't have the cowardly feather bracelet on his arm.
"Indeed." Cezar's voice was cold. "Did he succeed?"
She shrugged nonchalantly, despite the fact that her blood had begun to surge and race. "He did not, which was fortunate. I would have been powerless against him in the presence of those feathers-for no sooner had he backed me into a corner than one of the fabric merchants arrived. Monique interrupted and I was forced to decline Belial's proposition."
It must have been coincidence that the fabric merchant had, in fact, been Giordan Cale, in another of his disguises. He had sensed her upheaval, and when she told him about Belial, he became so still and quiet that she feared he would expose his identity and attack the servant. It was only her assurances that she was untouched and that Cezar would manage the problem on his return that kept Cale from throwing off his cloak and wig and going after the man.
"I suggest," she now told her brother firmly, "that you keep him away from me in the future. Or I'll kill him."
Cezar nodded, and it was to her credit that he didn't ask how she would do that. "I'll see that he won't bother you again. Perhaps you'd like to take matters into your own hands?"
Narcise smiled. "It would be my pleasure."
"Very well. I don't wish you to kill him," Cezar ordered. "But do whatever else you wish. I'll arrange for him to select his sword tomorrow night." He picked up his ever-present glass and looked into the blood-red liquid that clung to the sides when he swirled it. "But tonight, we have been invited to Monsieur Cale's private club."
Narcise's heart skipped a beat. "Have you accepted the invitation?"
Cezar looked at her as he raised the glass of blood-drenched Bordeaux, one of his favorite drinks. She wondered whose blood was in there, and shuddered at the thought-the certainty-that it might be that of a child. He sipped, then drew the glass away. "I want you to seduce him."
She didn't have to feign surprise, and quickly changed her expression to include distaste. "I have no desire to seduce anyone, let alone Monsieur Cale. Might I remind you that I've already been at his hands. Against my will."
"Consider this a different test of your skills. I'm not altogether certain you'll succeed, in fact, Narcise. And that's precisely why I wish for you to do so." He tapped his fingernail against the side of the glass.
"No," she said.
Cezar turned to look at her fully, and a dart of fear shot through her. "Are you certain of that?" he asked, the hiss in his voice more pronounced. "Perhaps I'll give you to Belial after all. And Morderin as well." His eyes burned orange-yellow. "I could dress you in that special cape I've had made for you...and then let you fight your way out of their hands."
Narcise swallowed. The cape...the very words made her knees weak and her stomach swim. It was soft and light and made of dark, gossamer lace, and it was lined with sparrow feathers. The very thought of those feathers, in such abundance and such proximity against her skin made her feel faint.
He'd forced her to wear it one time, merely, he said, to see if it would fit. Thank Luce it had only been for a few moments. Belial and Morderin had had to hold her upright while her brother draped it over her shoulders, for she not only had no strength to stand, but the pain was so excruciating, she felt as if her skin was burning off. She could hardly breathe when it was on her, and even when he'd first pulled it out of the lead chest, her body had gone numb and weak with paralysis.
Perhaps if she wore it long enough, she'd die. And perhaps that was why Cezar hadn't yet employed it other than that time.
"Very well," she replied, forcing her voice to be strong.
He gave her a brief nod. "Excellent. And, now, of course, once you seduce the man, he'll want to keep you."
She was relieved that her gaze had been downcast when he spoke, otherwise, she might have given away her feelings. "Don't they always?" she muttered loudly enough for him to hear.
"They do," he replied. "But you might wish to stay with a man like Giordan Cale."
Again, she kept her eyes down, praying he wouldn't feel the way her heart leaped in hope. They would be at Cale's house tonight. Perhaps she might never have to leave.
"To ensure that you don't find yourself convinced to stay," he continued smoothly, his lisp whistling more loudly again, "or if you don't do precisely as I bid, I have a few reasons that might assist you in complying with my desires."
Her heart swelled with dread and now she looked up at him, certain that naked fear and loathing showed in her eyes. "You are pure evil," she said even as he gestured to the curtained window on the opposite end of the room.
"All Dracule are evil at heart, darling Narcise," he reminded her. "After all, we wouldn't be Dracule if we weren't self-serving and greedy. Please. Open it and see."
She stood on shaking knees, her belly swishing with nausea. The curtains covered a window that led not to the outside, of course, for they were underground, but that gave visible access to the next chamber. She was fairly certain what she would find when she opened the drapes.
But she had to be certain; she had to know what he would use to bind her to him this time. The heavy drapes swished open and she only needed a quick glance to see what was there. "Lucifer's dark soul," she whispered when she saw the children.
"One of them is a prince," her brother told her proudly. "Or a comte or something of that nature. The royals are desperate to save their children from the guillotine, and will do anything to protect them-including pay for their safe passage to Romania."
There were a dozen or more, of all ages from toddler to young teen. Mercifully all were sleeping-drugged, she assumed-which explained why she hadn't heard cries or shouts from the next room. "That's where you were," she said, her voice still low, but now it was shaking. "When you claimed you went to Marseilles."
He nodded, tapping his fingernail against his glass again. "I'll take one for every hour that you disobey me, or that you are gone," he said. "They'll be awake and aware, and know everything that's happening to them. I'll even let the others watch in anticipation."
"And if I comply? Will you release them?"
His brows lifted as one M-shaped line. "But of course not. I went through considerable trouble to obtain them. However, if you comply with my wishes and commands, I will leave them asleep until I am in need. They'll never wake from their drug-induced state, and feel nothing when I feed." His eyes danced. "I confess I rather prefer that option, for to feed whilst the young ones fight and cry is rather upsetting to the digestion and detracts from the moment. But if their blood is laced with the opium of sleep, it's all that more pleasurable for all of us. The choice is up to you, my dear sister."
Narcise felt unfamiliar tears gather at the corners of her eyes. Only Lucifer could be more black-hearted, more evil than the man sitting across from her. And yet...she remembered him when he was a boy, playful and yet awkward-only five years older than she. He'd played with her, plaited her hair, helped her care for her dolls, took her for long walks to pick the rare flowers that grew in the mountains. And then when he turned twelve or thirteen, everything changed.
"What has happened to you, Cezar?" she burst out. "How could you have changed so? You used to dote on me, and I was no different than the little girls in there. Now you would bleed them to death."
"We will leave at half past eight. Wear the black dress," he told her, his eyes cold.
"I have no black dress," she replied, turning from the window as she pulled the drapes closed. Black was for widows or mourning, and as often as she felt dark and drab, it wasn't a color she wore. Although perhaps after tonight...
"You do," he said, and gestured to a large white box. "And when you are ready to leave, attend me, dear sister. For I have a new piece of jewelry for you."
Giordan wasn't surprised when he received word that Moldavi and his sister would be accepting his invitation for that evening. He'd waited until the day after Moldavi returned from his travels and then extended the invitation under the guise of welcoming him back.
Interestingly enough, although he hadn't specifically invited Narcise, the response had indicated that she would attend as well.
He sat thoughtfully, awaiting his guests' arrival, pondering the next step in this imaginary chess game with Moldavi. Perhaps tonight, at last, he could somehow extricate Narcise from beneath her brother's thumb, stealing her away forever. After all, how could Moldavi stop him, in his own house?
Tomorrow, perhaps tomorrow morning, he would slide into bed next to the woman he loved.
Less than an hour later, Narcise entered Giordan's private parlor on her brother's arm. He sensed her presence even before Mingo announced the Moldavi siblings, and allowed his conversation with Voss and Eddersley to trail off.
When Giordan turned and saw her face, he knew immediately that something was wrong. That knowledge was closely followed by the shock of attraction and desire that assaulted him when her brother removed her cloak, revealing her gown.
The chamber had gone silent and all eyes focused on Narcise. Giordan tore his gaze away, his mouth dry, fury pumping through his body, tightening his fingers, and he glanced at Cezar Moldavi. The man had a tight smirk on his face, and he was looking directly at him.
Take care. The warning was to himself and served as a mantra to control his reaction. He met the man's eyes briefly, forcing himself to keep his expression blank and certain he failed, then lifted his glass.
If his hand was unsteady, it was camouflaged by the way he sloshed the drink in it. "To Mademoiselle Moldavi," he said, "the first woman to ever rend Eddersley speechless."
Since Eddersley's sexual preferences were well-known, Giordan's jest served to break the tension in the chamber, and everyone-except the Moldavis-laughed, including Eddersley himself. Then his friend caught Giordan's eyes for a moment, and he saw the same shock and distaste lingering in that of Eddersley's.
Narcise, once disrobed of her cloak, had hardly moved more than a step into the chamber. Giordan was compelled beyond imagination to go to her, but somehow, conscious of Moldavi's regard, he refrained, keeping his shoes rooted to the rug.
Instead he watched as Voss made a straight line toward the woman, trying not to want to put the man's head through a wall.
Giordan found himself unwilling to chance looking at Narcise, yet unable to put the image of her out of his mind. Her face, ivory with nary a hint of color to it tonight, was stark and bare. Even her lips were pale, and her eyes had that dull look he'd seen before-a look he hadn't noticed since the last time she was here. Her night-black hair was pulled back from her face, and twisted and braided into some huge, intricate knot at the back of her head. Diamonds hung from her ears, long teardrops nearly brushing her shoulders, and more of them sparkled around the bulging knot of her hair.
But it was her gown-what there was of it, and gown was not really an accurate term-that had struck every man in the room dumb. It was unlike anything in the shops of the modistes anywhere in Paris, and Giordan couldn't help but wonder where Moldavi had had it made. The dress was in the style of centuries ago, that of a medieval lady: a simple, high-necked frock that laced up between the breasts and along the sides, clinging to every curve of the body from shoulder to knee. From there it flared out in a train onto the floor. Her sleeves were tight from shoulder to elbow then flared in long points nearly to her feet. And though the cut of her attire was unusual and revealing, it was its very substance that caused comment-for the entire dress was made only of black lace.
The gown clung to Narcise and revealed more than any whore's undergarments ever had. It was clear to Giordan that she wore no corset, no chemise or undergarments of any fashion. The only nod to propriety-not that such a thing existed in the world of the Dracule-was a black silk triangle at the juncture of her legs, and the triangular panels of her skirt, where it flared below the knees, were alternating black silk and black lace. Even the bodice was lace. Her breasts were uncovered, her nipples hidden by accident or design by a heavy part of the lace...but even the undercurves of her breasts were evident.
He knew without a doubt that Moldavi had forced her to wear it, and Giordan burned to kill the man. But something else bothered him, and it was the only reason he didn't pin Narcise's brother to the wall with a stake: the look in her eyes.
His Narcise, the one he'd come to know and respect and love, might not choose on her own to wear such a gown. But, even if forced, she would never show shame or even submission while wearing it. She would walk boldly into a chamber and ignore the openmouthed gaping of every man in the room.
There was something else.
It took him some time, mingling with the other guests, directing his vintages about, but Giordan at last made it to Narcise's side. She'd hardly moved from where she entered the room, and he could see the drawn expression in her face, the emptiness in her eyes even more clearly as he approached.
"Find some other skirt to chase," he told Voss flatly. "She's mine."
Voss's quickly checked surprise told Giordan that he, at least, hadn't sensed the sizzling connection between Narcise and him. And Voss, no matter how much he enjoyed variety in the shape of women, was not at all a stupid man. He gave his host a brief salute with his glass and sauntered away, a bemused smile curving his lips. One thing about Voss: he never tired of the courting, the chase or the variety.
"What is it?" Giordan asked immediately. "By the soul of Luce, Narcise, what has he done?"
"Don't you wish to compliment me on my gown, monsieur?" she asked in a detached voice. "It was specially chosen to help me in my task of seduction." Her cool smile didn't reach her eyes. They remained blank, blue circles. Her cheeks were pale; her lips were nearly colorless.
"And who are you supposed to seduce?" he replied with ice in his veins.
"Why, you, monsieur," she said, leaning into him, placing a slender hand on the center of his chest. "I am to seduce you. Here. Tonight."
Giordan stared down at her, his heart thumping madly, her scent and her very proximity luring him into distraction...yet he knew he couldn't allow his brain to go to mush. It was the first time she'd touched him since the night he spent hanging from a pair of manacles. The sight of her in a gown that amounted to nothing more than a lacy glove, along with her pronouncement, set his thoughts to reeling. But...
"I cannot help but wonder," he said carefully, resisting the need to touch her, to close his large hand over the one that rested on his shirtwaist, "why you seem to be less than eager. Is seducing me still that revolting to you, Narcise? I thought...I'd hoped..."
He stopped, aware that he sounded pathetic and desperate. If the woman hadn't come to feel anything for him in the last weeks-which had been tortuous for him, being unable to touch her with anything but his eyes-perhaps he was wasting his time trying to convince her otherwise.
"It's Cezar," she whispered, seeming hardly to be able to form the words.
But before she could continue, Narcise clamped her lips closed, her eyes focused on something behind him, which could only be the man in question. Giordan felt and scented her brother's presence, that heavy and familiar aroma, tinged with something else he found inexplicably unappealing.
He felt the weight of the man's attention on them, and then it lifted and moved on.
"But then, mademoiselle, perhaps we ought to commence with the seduction. I am certain you know precisely how I feel about it." He managed to make his words sound light, despite the dark overhang of the situation. "Will you put on a good performance for your brother? And should I pretend to resist, or should I drag you eagerly from this chamber as I've longed to do these last weeks?"
The column of her throat, slender and elegant and so very bitable, convulsed as she swallowed hard. What is it, Narcise?
"Be reluctant," she whispered as if she could hardly form the words. "I believe he is testing you-or us-somehow."
That chill came back, ice in his veins again. Then Giordan pushed it away. The man was in his home. He could do nothing.
Yet...he'd been in Dimitri's place, that night in Vienna, and somehow Moldavi had caused the building to burn to the ground and resulted in the death of Dimitri's mistress.
"Very well," he told her, turning slightly away. "I will play the reluctant target. For now. But take note, Narcise...once you are in my bed, my chamber, you'll never leave it. I won't let you go back with him."
He'd delivered these last words in an undertone for her ears only, but she stiffened and curled her fingers into the lapel of his coat. "No," she said. "I cannot stay. I won't stay, Giordan."
He stilled. Her refusal, coupled with her first ever use of his intimate name, told him much. Yet his emotion that overrode it all was that of anger. "Do you think I won't be able to protect you from him, in my own home?"
"It's not me. I don't fear for me any longer. It's...there are children. Hostages."
So that was it. "I'll kill him then. Now." He turned away, already considering where the closest stake or sword would be, but she caught his arm. Her fingers felt frail and he could easily have shaken her grip away.
Her words were low and desperate. "If he doesn't return tonight, the children are to be given to the servants to be fed on. They'll tear them apart. There's one in the carriage, waiting now with Belial. It's a girl-child, a young one-no more than eight. His orders are that if he doesn't return to them by midnight, Belial can do what he wishes." She seemed out of breath, exhausted by this long speech. "There is no way. Not tonight. One more night...it will make little difference."
Giordan was aware of a numbness creeping over him. "There must be a way. There is a way, Narcise. You have no idea what I'm capable of," he said, thinking back to those days on the streets when sticking a blade in someone who crossed him was as common as sleeping in the gutters.
"Please," she said, and she stumbled into him a bit. Her eyes were dark blue pools. "I can't risk it. Not tonight. It must be when he isn't expecting it, when he hasn't planned it all. Tonight is a test. Do you not think he will have considered every possible outcome and planned for it? Whatever you might attempt...he'll be one step ahead."
Then she smiled, but it was tight, and it worried him-along with the fact that she seemed to underestimate him.
Yet, when she pressed her body against his, the warmth from her presence, her heavy, erotic scent, the feel of her curves, all set his skin to tingling and his gums to swelling. She murmured as she looked up at him with hooded eyes, "I am certain we'll both enjoy what's to come. Can we not leave it at that? Just for tonight?"
"Very well," he said, yet unwilling to put the possibility of her freedom from his mind. But if she was willing and able to return with Cezar to save the children, how could he argue with her? Giordan wasn't certain he'd be able to make the same choice, but he must respect hers.
He slid an arm around her slender waist, pulling her close to him so that her breasts pressed against his chest. Surely she could feel his cock filling out his breeches. He was already imagining pulling the pins from her heavy hair, peeling the lace from her curves, sinking his teeth into the soft side of her belly while his fingers found her swollen quim. His breathing became rough and unsteady, his fangs long and hard.
"May I succumb to your wiles now, then, Narcise? Have I been reluctant enough?"
"Yes, I believe I've done my duty and convinced you," she said, and for the first time, he saw a spark of heat in her eyes.
"Will you allow me to touch you tonight, cher?" his voice dropped low. "Are you willing? Tell me the truth, Narcise."
"I am more than willing." Yet...something still lurked in her eyes. Some hesitance.
Confused and angry with whatever it was, he nevertheless offered her his arm. "Shall we? I'm certain you'd prefer all of this to happen somewhere a bit more private."
When she hardly moved, he looked down at her again. Her eyes had that dull look, her lips were slightly parted. She was either deathly afraid or in great-hell.
"Where the devil is it?" he demanded, taking her shoulders and turning her to face him. Fury at his stupidity, his blindness rushed over him. "Where's the feather? You're wearing one, aren't you?"
She nodded slightly, relief swimming in her eyes. "Around my neck. But not...here." Her eyes focused on him, and now he recognized the pain behind the emptiness. "He can't see...."
"Yes, here," he said in a low, furious voice. But he turned so that his body blocked the view of anyone watching.
Cezar would die. Slowly. Giordan would ensure that it took days. Perhaps weeks.
He found the slender golden chain at her throat in seconds, and began to pull it from her gown. It was very long, and the single feather that hung from it had been slipped down the back of her gown, between the lace and her skin. Which meant it had been burning into her for at least an hour.
No damned wonder she'd hardly moved. She couldn't.
Giordan snapped the golden chain and pulled the feather away, already seeing the relief in her face and eyes. Color came back into her skin and life in her blue-violet irises.
"Now," he said, "let me have you."
Cezar Moldavi watched as Cale led Narcise from the chamber. It had been a battle between them, he noted with satisfaction. She'd had to beg and plead, to coerce.
That Cale hadn't immediately followed her like a besotted dog from the parlor gave Cezar hope. Perhaps he was wrong.
After all, every test he'd given Cale so far had turned out to be unnecessary. How many men would have declined the offer to "watch over" Narcise during her brother's absence?
And even if Cale was smart enough to see that he was being set up and to refuse the offer of having-what was it they said here? carte blanche?-with Narcise, surely he would at least have attempted to visit her or otherwise see her during Cezar's absence.
But, no. All of his prying eyes in the household had assured him that Giordan Cale hadn't so much as sent a message to the Moldavis, let alone attempted to call, until the day Cezar returned.
Anticipation bubbled deep within and it was all he could do not to smile broadly. He knew nearly everything he needed to about Giordan Cale. The last would become clear tonight, and then he would determine how to proceed.
A burst of laughter from the corner drew Cezar's attention to Lord Eddersley, the dark, gangly fop from London. He subdued the sneer that threatened his upper lip. Men like him, so open and obvious about their preferences, disgusted him.
Cezar turned away, sipping the fine vintage Cale had poured tonight. The man had excellent taste, along with his broad shoulders and thick, curling hair. He could hardly wait to taste the man himself.