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Can a determined woman convince a gorgeous vampire to save a child’s life by sacrificing his own?

1999 Romance and Beyond Contest Grand Prize Winner
Published in ROMANCE & BEYOND MAGAZINE, Spring 1999 Issue

Excerpt

© Copyright 2009 - All Rights Reserved

The sun had been a white, dead eye peering through a thin blanket of gray clouds for hours. Now it dropped onto the rooftop of the Victorian house, spread a gold and rose hue, and sank out of sight.

Was the sudden flash of beauty a good omen? If it was, then it was a farewell, the last sunset Elizabeth would ever see.

She stepped into the shadow of the porch, and the front door opened at the same moment. Not the meager crack begrudged strangers, but all the way back, so that the man who opened it stood fully framed in the threshold.

Vanessa had told her not to look into his eyes, but habits of a lifetime couldn't be broken based on a plan less than a week old, a plan based on something Elizabeth hadn't even believed in before that.

Deep velvet blue above the pupil lightened into a paler blue below it, like a sky at sunset, the layer nearest the ground holding onto the light even as the upper strata released it and embraced the night. The deeper color held her, drew her in, the light of the sun forgotten. An overwhelming sense of heartbreak and loss swept over her, an unshakable certainty that whatever was about to happen was something meant to be, something larger than the very large thing that had brought her to his doorstep. Her hand missed the rail, but Elizabeth wasn’t afraid. He was here, he would catch her.

He didn’t. Her knees hit the boards like door knockers and her hands flew out to catch herself. A splinter speared her palm and the pain lanced into her brain, chasing the moment of illusion away.

“Are you all right?” he asked, not moving. A voice with a hundred different resonances, all from deep within the earth, capable of everything from sensual warmth to the distant, freezing politeness Elizabeth heard now.

She could get past that. Her reaction to his gaze was the first indication that he might be what she thought he was. Elizabeth scrambled to her feet. “Yes, I’m just fine. I’m a bit dizzy, that’s all.”

“Dizziness is to be expected when you’ve sat in the freezing rain all day spying on someone’s home.” His eyes swept her. “Don’t you know vampires wake at dusk? You could have shown up at sunset and saved yourself the wait. I’d have answered the door with a dramatic ‘I’ve been expecting you’. He braced his hand on the door frame, shifting to one hip. “I’d have worn my red satin-lined cloak, if I could ferret out where I put it.”

Elizabeth took a few steps back as he came out onto the porch. Michael M. Royal looked disconcertingly non-vampirish in faded, loose jeans and bare feet, but rumpled hair, denim and sleepy eyes aside, the man emanated power. It didn’t come just from the broad shoulders and muscled biceps, accentuated by the stretched soft jersey fabric of his gray t-shirt and his crossed arms. Dark hair fell to his shoulders, feathered layers around an archangel’s face, each plane sculpted, masculine perfection.

“Moira called me,” he added.

“She what?” Elizabeth took another step, back onto the walkway. He sat down on the top step and stretched, yawning hugely, revealing a razor sharp set of fangs. He cracked his back, flexed his fingers, then settled his chin on his hand, contemplating her with interest, as if he hadn’t remembered ordering dinner delivered.

“Moira informed me that I should expect Elizabeth McKenzie on my doorstep at nightfall, and I should listen to what she had to say, and not for a moment think of sucking her blood, unless,” he leaned over, flipped open the brass mailbox mounted on the porch railing and retrieved the contents, “unless, of course, you decide that it’s necessary to accomplish what it is you’re here to accomplish.

“Mr. Royal, I—“

“Oh,” he flipped idly through the circulars in his lap, “she also added that if I should prove to be a nasty, diabolical chap, she and the rest of her coven would seal me in my coffin with a binding spell and I wouldn’t see the full moon ever again.”

The oak door behind him was paneled in ruby glass, a match for her face, Elizabeth was sure. “I’m sorry,” she swallowed. “We made a mistake. You’ve been a good sport, but this was…this was all a joke. Moira…thought you were someone else, and she’s going to be terribly embarrassed when I tell her we played a joke on the wrong person. I’ll tell her about the false teeth, though. She’ll get a kick out of that.”

Stupid, stupid, stupid. It sounded lame, but then she wouldn’t ever see him again, so who cared? Elizabeth turned her back on him and followed the magnolia-shaped concrete flagstones toward the picket gate, trellised by a twisting arc of naked grapevine. She had let an emotional week sway her judgment. Moira’s comfortable way of talking about otherworldly things could make anyone believe in toads that turned into princes, unicorns, and yes, vampires. She wanted so much to believe in a miracle that she had lulled herself into insanity. No. Stark, raving lunacy.

Elizabeth hesitated at the gate. There was nothing between here and the bus stop but a mile of walking and more of the same elegant old houses. She couldn’t ask. She had to ask. Elizabeth muffled a sigh and turned, forcing herself to walk back up the path with her head held high, no matter that she looked like an ice cream sundae in her fat, quilted white parka, her cherry red face framed by the brown acrylic fur hood.

Michael Royal looked up from his mail and raised a brow.

“Listen, I know I’ve probably already convinced you I’m a total lunatic,” she tightened her lips as sardonic humor began to crease the corners of those beautiful eyes. “But I walked from the bus stop, and, as you said, I’ve been sitting here all day, and…”

He nodded sagely and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Go on in. Bathroom’s on the right in the hall.”

She let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks. Sure you don’t mind?”

“So long as you don’t slip into the basement to look for my coffin.”

Elizabeth managed a nervous chuckle, which sounded stale bouncing off his cool silence. “All right, I’ll be right back.”

“Take your time.”

She paused, her hand on the glass doorknob. “Aren’t you cold?” she gestured at his bare feet and short sleeves.

Michael turned, bracing one foot on the porch and leaving the other on the top step, laying one hand loosely over his knee. There was a tear in the thigh of the jeans. “Perhaps I’m just warm-natured.”

At her dubious look, an ironic smile crept over his lips. “Or perhaps I’m a reptile, a cold-blooded snake waiting for you to look into my eyes.”

Elizabeth snorted. “I’ll be out of your hair in a moment.” He shrugged and went back to his mail, turning his back on her.

The close, fire-warmed air hugged her like a quilt the moment she crossed the threshold. A roaring fire crackled in the study to her left, bathing the masculine mahogany and forest green interior in red and gold. The hallway floor was polished oak, the ceiling moldings separated at the corners by carved roses that complemented exquisite paintings of the same on the ceiling, circling a chandelier with elongated crystal tulips for lamps. In the small bathroom, a bronze mermaid held a wall sconce with the same lamp design.

Elizabeth removed her coat, took care of her needs and washed her hands, selecting a soap from a porcelain urn of them, different flower shapes, all musky, exotic scents. The house's voluptuous sensuality had been planned for two. She pressed her lips together, trying to quash the guilt that rose at the thought. A life was at stake. Otherwise, she wouldn't be here.

Elizabeth stepped back out onto the porch, folding her coat over her arm. The walkway beyond him framed his body as he sat on the top step, where his feet did not touch the path to the outside world.

"How long have you been a shut in?" she asked quietly.

His head lifted, the broad shoulders stiffening. "You've obeyed the call of nature, now obey courtesy and leave me be." He twisted around and froze.

Shock transformed his features into raw, anguished need. It stripped off the bitterness and sarcasm, and Elizabeth saw the depth of the wound they covered. His loneliness punctured her conscience and went straight to her heart, like a scalpel slicing down to the bone. In that moment, she forgot her real purpose and wanted to do absolutely anything to heal him, as if what had hurt him had hurt her just as intimately.

"I do look like her, don't I?" she whispered.

A rush of air and she stood alone, holding an offer from Ed McMahon to win 23 million dollars.

Elizabeth whirled. The door was shut. A spray of dead leaves rattled across the porch boards.

"Enough of this," she muttered. She raised her hand to knock, clenched a fist and threw open the door.

He sat in the study in a medieval king's chair, all hard angles and dark, heavy wood, the firelight dancing along his annoyed face and the bookcases behind him.

"If I am what you think I am, that was incredibly stupid," Michael Royal said. He rose from the chair, advancing across the room. "At least vampires have to have permission to enter a home."

Elizabeth hung her coat on the courteous hand of a gargoyle and started down the hall.

"Where the hell are you going?"

"To your kitchen."

The expulsion of breath through his nostrils was disturbingly like that of a bull about to charge, but Elizabeth disregarded it. She bullied the dying all the time. Bullying the living dead didn't seem a great leap.

She jerked open the fridge door and he stopped just short of running into it. "Looking for stolen Red Cross supplies?"

Elizabeth stared at the contents. "No." She raised her green eyes to his face. "Juice, Fig Newtons. That's the type of thing the Red Cross gives to people after they give blood. You know, Fig Newtons don't have to be refrigerated."

"Thank you, Martha Stewart. I like juice," he said, crossing his forearms along the rubber seal of the fridge door. "I jog on a treadmill. I take vitamins."

"You keep your drapes drawn," she pointed out.

"I like privacy. An alien concept to you obviously, but there you have it."

Elizabeth yanked the door from beneath his arm and closed it. "You moved off the porch faster than I could see you."

"You've been without food or warmth for almost twelve hours. You're probably hallucinating."

"You just got up, right?"

He shrugged, raised that aristocratic brow again. "What of it? I prefer to be up at night."

"So you just got out of bed, and came to get the mail. Didn't stop for a cup of coffee, nothing?"

Michael Royal's blue eyes narrowed. "I don't like coffee."

Elizabeth took a step toward him, and necessarily tilted her head back. She passed her fingers over his jaw, avoiding his eyes so she wouldn't lose courage. "Most men have a shadow when they wake up. But then, vampires only have to have the hair they choose to have, don't they? No longer, no shorter, no Saturday trips to the barber."

She shifted to the eyes then, and discovered they had become a great deal colder. The cold chased the warmth of the house from her bones and left a chill touch of apprehension. Elizabeth had pushed the dying too far before. Typically an apology and some warm nurturing fixed it. She didn't usually have to fear a physical reprisal from people she could carry to the bathroom. Michael Royal might be a different matter. A smile abruptly creased his features, the fanged smile of a predator. Elizabeth dropped her hand from his face.

"Why are you looking so pleased?" She managed a bland expression.

"Because," he bent and whispered, his breath touching her tense features, "you're inside. It doesn't matter what I am. You're trapped."

Savage bloodlust glinted red in his eyes, eyes that opened the promise of hell to her. Survival instinct took over and noble purpose fled from her mind. Elizabeth bolted.

She skidded to a halt in the hallway, catching the drape along the stairwell to stop herself. The splinter tore free against the rough surface of the tapestry, and she sucked in a breath, but not because of the pain. Michael leaned against the front door.

"Getting fainthearted now, are we?"

She raced to the kitchen and found him there, leaning against the back door, arms crossed. Reflexively, she glanced back toward the hallway.

"Expect there are two of me?"

This was silly. She wasn't here to run from him. Elizabeth expected to die with him. "One seems more than enough," she retorted, hating the fact her voice quavered. "If you're intending to hurt me just for kicks, I suggest you remember Moira's warning."

"Ah, yes, the Wiccan and her Coven. Sounds like a New Age band. I don't know which I despise more, the sympathetic New Agers who think I'm misunderstood, or the witch burners who thought I should be torn apart by a team of draft horses."

"Have you always been this hateful?"

"It's my house. I can be whatever I want to be. You should see how I treat Jehovah's Witnesses."

"I didn't realize they come out at night."

"Most blood-sucking fiends do."

"I have good friends who are Jehovah's Witnesses."

"Of course you do. You seem a very open-minded young woman."

He moved toward her, deliberate and fast. Elizabeth made herself stay still, though her legs shook, threatening to drop her to the floor. I can't outrun him. Either he kills me or he doesn't. Remember Letty. Letty's why I'm here.

Michael brushed his palm against her cheek, his finger touching a lock of curling red hair, fallen loose against her face. Elizabeth yelped as he yanked off her hair band, jerking her neck. Her hair tumbled onto her shoulders, all fire.

Elizabeth swallowed. He held a fistful of her hair, keeping her head turned away, her jugular exposed to him. With his free hand, he traced her ears, her delicately arched eyebrows, her forehead dusted by stray wisps of hair. He cupped the back of her neck beneath her hair, his thumb outlining the wildly pumping vein in her throat. At first she stood like a rabbit under his hold, her breath coming fast, thinking she was about to get her throat ripped out. As his fingers moved lightly over her, her nerves ignited, warming her frozen muscles with fire.

A tremor ran through his hand. He clenched his fingers on her throat and she gasped, grabbing his forearms. "Please don't," she whispered.

He yanked his arms out of her grasp. "You need a Band-Aid," he snarled. "Follow me."

"A Band-Aid for what?"

"Your hand. It's bleeding."

Elizabeth raised a shaking hand and saw bright drops of blood welling out of the cut from the splinter. She pulled her attention back to Michael. He was already halfway up the stairs, headed to the second floor.

Her body quivered from the heart down. She had come here for a reason, and Michael Royal had muddled all of her intentions within ten minutes, dimming her resolve in the incendiary potency of those fingers along her throat, in her hair. Elizabeth went after him, clenching her jaw. Maybe they didn't have to look into your eyes. Maybe their seductive powers could be communicated through touch.

The wall along the stairs was stepped with Impressionist paintings, all light and air. A cherry wood telephone table sat at the top, with a Ming dynasty vase filled with red and white hothouse orchids.

He flipped on the bathroom light and she saw that, while the downstairs had been modified little from its original watercloset form, the upstairs bath was an opulent bathing area complete with lotus-shaped tub, and plants hanging from scrolled gingerbread rafters. There was a dressing table with a Baroque period picture of a woman bathing. Every room except the study seemed designed to suit a woman's pleasure.

"Let me see your finger."

She hesitated. "Elizabeth," he said patiently. "Contrary to what you've seen in the movies, vampires do not turn into rabid dogs at the sight of a drop of blood, no more than you do at the sight of dessert when you've just come off a full meal."

"You've never seen me going after chocolate," she said shakily.

He shot her a look, put his hands to her waist and sat her on the counter. He retrieved an amethyst glass jar full of round Band-Aids from the shelf.

Elizabeth cleared her throat, uncertain how to react to being lifted as if she weighed no more than a cotton ball. "What do you use those for?"

Michael smiled, a baring of teeth, and tapped his neck. "For those gracious enough to give me my meals."

"Is that all they are? Meals?"

He put the jar down and leaned into her, bracketing her onto the counter. It put his body between her thighs, a position that made her swallow the air between them, air that seemed to contain too little oxygen. "If that's all they are to me, Elizabeth, I'd just kill them." He lifted his head slightly over hers, so that the word 'kill' dropped onto her cheek like a flower petal, his lips grazing her eyelashes. He pulled back slowly, no more than an inch or two, and his gaze wandered over her mouth. "It's a hell of a lot more efficient to drink one human dry and live off that for weeks. Life blood is the equivalent of a Slim Fast shake--all the nutrients for a well- balanced vampire diet."

He stepped back, and her heart tumbled back into her chest again. "The finger, please. Do you prefer the 101 Dalmatians brand or the plain brown that looks like an ugly mole?"

The giggle came out before she could stop it, inspired more by nerves than humor, and by the contrast of the irritated male expression with the polite question. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just, you don't seem the 101 Dalmatians type."

"The greedy corporate tentacles of Disney reach even into the undead world." He lifted a shoulder. "My maid shops. I rarely make objections, especially on the items that comfort them after my feedings."

"101 Dalmatians, then. So your domestic help brings you everything you need here?"

"Servants," he corrected. "They serve me, which means they are loyal to me for reasons other than their rather substantial paychecks. Which is why it surprises me that there is obviously one who isn't loyal. I don't guess you'll tell me who, for fear I'll rip her throat open?"

"You don't seem to work too hard to hide who you are," she deflected the question, trying not to dwell on an act that he looked entirely capable of implementing.

"I don't have to, Elizabeth. They do specials every Halloween about people who think they're vampires - Jerry Springer himself had some on a special live night cast. To your world, I'm just one of those freaks."

He wrapped the Band-Aid around her finger, holding it steady with three fingers encircling her wrist, then released her and tossed the wrapper in the trash.

"Shall I kiss it and make it better?"

Elizabeth looked into his mocking face. She tightened her chin, lifted it.

"Why not?"

Surprise flickered through his eyes, then they narrowed and he leaned in. Elizabeth brought her fingertip up between them, laid it on his lips a moment before they would have touched hers. "The scrape is on my finger," she whispered.

"So it is." He curled his fingers around her closed palm, opened hers and kissed the injured one below the level of the bandage, so that his firm, warm lips pressed against her skin, raising tiny nerve endings that quivered all the way down to the throbbing pulse in her wrist. He followed the trail, and rested his mouth over it, a soft, wet kiss that strummed the vein. The tip of his tongue traced it. Then she felt the scrape of a sharp tooth.

Elizabeth snatched her hand out of his grasp before she thought it through, so fast the tooth grazed her, drawing a red line across the point where her blood flowed.

He raised his head, looked at her with contempt. "Not as brave as you thought, are you?" He straightened, stepped back and leaned against the wall across from her. "What is it you want from me, Elizabeth?"

"What did Moira tell you?"

"Probably just about everything. She's very loose-lipped for a witch. She said the two of you found some spell in an old dusty book that said if a pair of vampire lovers were willing to give their lives to a sick, dying child, the touch of their mixed blood would give that child renewed life."

His gaze shot down, and Elizabeth stopped thrumming the heels of her snow boots against the cabinet doors. She slid off the counter and crossed her arms, imitating his obstinate stance. "That's pretty much the summation. Any questions?"

"Why not?" He slid down the wall, sat on the tile floor and linked his arms around his splayed knees. "Question: why would Moira, whom I assume is a good friend, allow you to come alone to the home of a perfect stranger?"

"She didn't want to." She wouldn't rehash all the tears and fights that had led to Moira's agreement to help. Even now, Moira was at home, desperately trying to find a less final way for Elizabeth to meet her goal, because Moira felt entirely responsible for Elizabeth's choice. It had started the same way, Moira trying to find anything in her many books and on-line contacts to help Elizabeth heal the child, and she had uncovered the scrap from a damaged book, a fanciful myth that Moira had never dreamed practical Elizabeth would consider.

Until Vanessa, a voodoo priestess who was also a member of Moira's coven, a priestess who paid her bills by cleaning Michael Royal's house, came by to help. She read the spell, looked at Elizabeth's face with the same physical shock of recognition that Michael had, and told them about her employer. She showed Elizabeth the marks on her throat where she allowed Michael to feed.

"Va. . . your servant, told me about. . . the picture in your study. Moira did a reading on me," Elizabeth slid down the side of the cabinet and sat with her feet inside his, her tense fingers wrapped around her knees. "In the reading, a spirit spoke through me, told Moira that I was a very old soul, that I had lost my life's love in a horrible tragedy, and that meeting you would be the key to reuniting me with that soulmate."

"Oh, for the love of God," he shot back to his feet, sneered at her from a towering height. "That song and dance has been pulled out of every charlatan's hat for a thousand years. I have a soulmate, out there, waiting for me, " he mimicked, so scathingly that Elizabeth flushed. She set her teeth.

"In the trance, I said my name was Autumn. Tell me that wasn't her name."

"It wasn't," he said flatly, leaving the bathroom and shutting off the light.

She rolled to her feet, took off after him and stopped him in the hall with a hand on his arm. There was a stained glass rosette window at the end of the dimly lit hall, and the brilliant colors played against his face as the moon rose behind it. "It could have been in the life between hers and this one. It doesn't mean anything."

"You're right. It doesn't mean anything. Any of it."

"Okay, then. What does it matter? The prophecy said lovers," she continued doggedly, "But it doesn't have to mean lovers in the sense of a strong emotional bond. Moira thinks the magical energy from a . . . sexual union would work." To her credit, she faltered only a little over the word 'sexual'. "That, and the willing blood sacrifice, shed in the baby's presence, should do it."

"Question ," he ground out. "I've lived for 400 years. Why would I throw it away for one child?"

"Because you want to die." She saw the thermometer drop in his gaze again, and Elizabeth rushed on.

 

"Vanessa says it's in everything you do. She's worked for you ten years and you've never left the house. You shut yourself off from life, you act like you have no purpose."

"You have the most unbelievable gall. And Vanessa is fired."

"This is a purpose," she clutched his arm, heartened by the fact he stayed, when he could have thrown her off. "The most noble purpose imaginable, giving your life, which you no longer want, to someone who desperately wants a chance to live. I know her life would be short compared to yours, but any amount of time we're given is to be treasured. Does it mean anything to you anymore? Wouldn't you give anything for it to mean something again, even if it's only one precious moment?"

He swallowed, looked out the window, the light through the glass playing in his unreadable, amazing eyes.

"Weren't there other spelIs," he growled, "that could do this thing you need to do?"

"Of course." Elizabeth made a face. "Things like finding a unicorn to touch its horn to her forehead, or taking fairy dust from a circle they danced at Beltane, etc. But, it's the middle of winter, so no fairies, and we had no idea where to find a unicorn. We were pretty sure about you."

Michael chuckled. "You realize this is a totally absurd situation."

"Unless you're an infant struggling to breathe with all you've got."

He looked at her, for the first time with compassion. "Perhaps she's meant to die, Elizabeth."

"No," she shook her head. "No, she's not. I've known it since the moment I saw her. I-"

"Elizabeth, most humans have trouble accepting death."

"I don't." She held up a hand. "Michael, I'm a nurse for Hospice, that's what I do. I've sat by a hundred bedsides and I believe death is the one thing in our lives that's fated, predestined. And yes, before you say it, I've helped children die, too. Babies don't usually call for Hospice care, for obvious reasons. They're usually in the hospital the minute they get critically ill. This child is different."

"Why?" His blue eyes watched her, measured her response.

"They found her in a trash can, outside the hospital. She has AIDS. Everyone says she'll die; she's too premature, too weak. I was at the hospital one night a couple weeks ago to finish some paperwork. They had told me about her, told me she had no chance, and I tend to think the dying, of any age, like some company. So," she lifted a shoulder, staring at his ear since it was hard to meet that penetrating gaze and stay on track, "I decided to pull up a chair near her and do the forms. All of a sudden, I felt I was being watched. I look up and she's looking right at me, with eyes as brown and soft as a calf’s, all possibilities. She's not old enough or big enough to open her eyes. I was trapped in her gaze for I don't know how long," Elizabeth managed a smile. "Almost like I was in yours when I first saw you. Then she closed her eyes, and she hasn't opened them since. I know it's crazy, but in that short time I felt like she reached out, spoke to my soul. At that moment, I knew, even if my life depended on it, I'd do whatever I had to do to give her a chance."

Elizabeth shifted her attention back to his eyes, and found them much nearer than she had expected. He had moved closer and now she was pressed against the rail that divided the hall from the stairs. "I know this is all absurd," she stammered. "I just. . . I can't think of anything else, and she doesn't have much longer, so what does it matter if I make a fool of myself?"

"You're right." He slid his knuckles along her ribs, touching her elbow, lifting her arm so her hand rested on his shoulder. "Your life does depend on it."

As easy-flowing as a breeze lifting her hair, his fingers went under it, wrapping in the flaming tendrils, pulling them down so the ends brushed his other hand, pressed against the small of her back. He brought her up against him, all solid muscle and male scent, an old-fashioned musk cologne. Elizabeth drew in a frightened breath as he exposed her throat to him, and then cried out as his fangs sank into it.

She didn't know if he intended to kill her or grant her wish, but the pain scared her, as did the unbreakable strength of his grasp. But just as the serpent releases a poison from its fangs to sedate its prey, so too did something come from the touch of his mouth on her skin, the press of his teeth into her flesh. The fear passed after one, almost unbearable moment of panic, and then the world began to whirl, to fill with wild, breathtaking color and sensations that rippled along her skin and inside her body.

She whimpered into his hair, and his hands moved, grasped her sweater and tore it up the back. Air touched her bare skin, and she groaned with relief. Nothing made by man felt right, as if his bite injected a magic into her that predated man, so far beyond what man was that the touch of clothing was like being trapped in a wool sweater in a humid jungle. She had to get out of it, be rid of it, now. Elizabeth managed to get out of her boots and socks, but she couldn't relax her arms from their hold on Michael's neck to get rid of her jeans.

The world spun, spun, and still he drank, taking her life, giving her something more amazing than life in return. He pulled her jeans off her hips himself, taking the cotton underwear with them. He encircled her waist with one arm, lifted her off her feet and yanked the pants down her legs, where she finished the job by kicking them off and wrapping her legs around his hips. He pressed her against the rail. She fitted against him eagerly, keening in passion, and a growl reverberated from his chest. A trickle of blood escaped his lips and he followed it down, licking it off her breast, and she cried out from the loss of the connection. He framed her face, devoured her with eyes gone completely dark blue, then bit down upon her neck again, renewing the pleasure like an unexpected second climax.

She held on, hearing her pulse slowing, slowing. Her fingers spasmed in his hair, and he stroked her bare back, reassuring. The unexpected tenderness finished her. With a sigh, she let her soul go, and the world vanished into darkness.

* * *

Elizabeth woke alone in his bedroom. It took some time for her to walk to the study. She had to negotiate the stairs slowly, and then the downstairs hall with one hand along the chair rail. When she saw him standing before the picture over the fireplace, the uninhibited abandon with which she had held onto him returned, and she flushed, contrasting with the cool creation of sapphire blue silk she now wore, the same dress the woman wore in the portrait. It fit Elizabeth perfectly. Michael didn't look at Elizabeth, and there was something loose in the room that made her hesitate at the threshold, uncertain.

"Why did you put me in her clothes?"

"Because I wanted to see you, to see if. . ." he shook his head, bowed it. His shoulders tightened.

Elizabeth screamed as she suddenly found herself against the door frame, her feet not touching the floor, his powerful hands grinding her shoulders into the molding. Michael's face was a livid mask of rage, blue eyes gone to fire.

"Why did you come? I could bear it, until you came!"

He could crush her just by bringing his hands together, but the pain in his eyes was something Elizabeth knew. The terror passed and she raised a shaking hand, touched his cheek, holding it there even when he hissed at her.

"She would hate seeing you shut yourself away like this." She felt it, a fiery pain in her chest for a man cloistered with his grief and her picture for years, who could not age. Perhaps, if he believed in all the rules for vampires, he did not even have the hope of joining her after death.

He let her go, turned from her. When he turned back, he looked at her with hard, cold eyes, appraised her body with a carnal intensity that caused nervous flutterings to start again. She could not keep up with his moods.

"I've had enough of your pity. Why don't I have your body now? Since that's part of the grand plan."

Elizabeth refused to rise to the defense, though his possessive, demanding expression made her apprehensive on several levels. "I'm not. . . unwilling," she swallowed, balled up her hands, then made herself relax her fingers. "I mean, to save this baby I’ll do anything, but. . . that didn't sound right. . . you're very attractive. . . it's just that I've never. . .”

When she stopped, completely mortified, his eyes had softened. He caught her hand.

"I know. I apologize." He kissed it, sucked one finger slowly from knuckle to nail, making her breath catch in her throat, and then he pulled her to him and kissed the throbbing pulse there. "Elizabeth, your presence may anger me, but I would never hurt you in that way, you may be assured of that. Why has no man ever had you?"

Elizabeth shook her head, curling her fingers into his upper arms, touching some t-shirt, some bare skin. His rare flashes of tenderness were like a drug that made her relax almost instantly. She couldn't bear to have him become cynical again, and he would if she explained the feeling she had always had, that she was meant for only one man, that she belonged to that man. She had always felt if she let her virtue be taken by anyone but him, her heart and soul would be destroyed forever. It was one of the things that had convinced her to come to Michael Royal's door, some mysterious pull of his name when Vanessa spoke it. He might not be the one, but he would be the last chance in this lifetime to find out.

His lips lingered, caressed, moving up to the skin right beneath her ear, and she shuddered. Her knees buckled.

Michael scooped her up into his arms, and Elizabeth caught onto his neck. "Why am I so weak?"

"You will be, for awhile. That's why a fledgling always stays close to the master at first. You have to feed off my energy, my blood, to gain your strength, and to truly become a vampire. You're already much stronger than you were as a human, whether you realize it or not. It's just you're tired and I'm that much stronger. Eventually, we'd be more on par."

"I'd be as strong as you?"

"Well," he shrugged. "Some things don't change with immortality. I'd still have superior upper body strength."

He sat down and cradled her in his lap before the fire, missing her smile. Her head fell back against his shoulder.

"Here, now. Drink." He put his wrist to her mouth and she turned green eyes to him, uncertain.

"I don't. . . I just bite it?"

Michael smiled. He balanced her on his knees, drew out a wicked looking dagger from the secretary just to the left of the chair. "Letter opener."

She lifted a brow. "Not in this lifetime."

He grinned, slid it across his wrist. She drew in a breath, despite herself, and her hands flew to his arm to heal, to comfort. Michael's eyes darkened, and he cupped the back of her head with his other hand. "Drink, Elizabeth. You'll need the strength."

She thought it would repel her, but the smell of blood came into her nose and she took his wrist in both hands, latching on with a ferocity that surprised her. She looked up into his face. He watched her with a bemused softness and stroked her hair as she fed, reminding her how mother animals lick their young to encourage appetite.

The rush of fresh blood into her system didn't make her feel childlike. The butterfly wing fabric of her dress made it easy to feel what was beneath her hips. She spoke into his flesh as she drank, sensuous murmurings with no words, and instinctively she rubbed herself on him, slow, sinuous circles that tightened his fingers in her hair. She wanted him to plunge into her, give her pleasure and offer him the same, for reasons that had nothing to do with Letty, for reasons far greater than the stirrings of hormones. This man was hers, she knew it.

Elizabeth showed him in her glittering emerald eyes that he could have her, that she wanted it, and in one fierce, rushing movement they were stretched out before the fire, her arms spread and crucified on the carpet by the relentless hold of his, his body between her splayed thighs, impressing on her exactly what she had roused.

Elizabeth strained upward to kiss him. He allowed a brief meeting to kiss the blood off her lips, but then he tore his mouth away and claimed her neck with a wet open mouth and hot, tiny nips that had her writhing beneath him, struggling to free hands manacled by his strength.

"Please. . . ." she gasped. She wrapped her legs around him, strove to bring him into her through force of will alone, wanting so much to be one with him, needing it like she needed life and air. Of course, she needed neither of those things anymore. All she needed was him.

Michael raised his head, looked at her passion-roused features, let go of her hands and framed her face, staring into her eyes. "Be still," he whispered.

She went still, though it was the last thing she wanted to do. Her lips parted, the tip of her tongue running across her small fangs.

She saw something die in his eyes as he looked at her, some irreplaceable sense of himself. Elizabeth slid her hands up to his face, bringing it down to her to press a soft kiss over his eyebrow, letting him rest his brow on the bridge of her nose. "I don't have to be her. Take what you can from me."

He pulled away from her with a sound like a wounded animal. Elizabeth reached after him, trailed his arm and hip with seeking fingers, but he moved out of her range and back to the mantle. He stared up at the picture, his back to her. Elizabeth raised up on her elbows. He brought his fist down on the mantle, and wood cracked. She jumped, and he spun on his heel.

"You don't get it, do you? Do you know when I stopped hearing her voice? Trying to speak to her? Never. I never have. The curtain moves at the window, and I still think it's the movement of her skirt, or her hair. Don't you get it? I never stop wanting her to be here. I fired a servant for wearing a perfume like hers--it drove me mad. Two hundred years and I still miss her. Every evening I wake up and I remember she's dead, as if it only happened when I slept. Every day is a thousand mockeries of what used to be."

He drew a ragged breath and turned away from her, raising a hand to ward her off when she would have gone to him. "She used to think I was brave. I'm not, Elizabeth. I can't do it. I'll go with you, and yes, I'll give my life to this child of yours. Perhaps the blood bond between us will be enough--it's like a lovers' bond, the bond between master and made vampire. But to make love to another woman, to give myself to you. . . I can't."

His voice held none of the sarcastic arrogance. It was hoarse, broken, and Elizabeth was already rising to her feet, her lust for blood and carnal pleasure gone, wanting only to offer compassion to a pain so great it engulfed her in its hold.

"There is something inside of me so strong, when I think of her . . . I couldn't control it, if it got loose," he lifted his head, his dark hair brushing his shoulders. "I can bear death; I welcome it. It's as you say, a noble way out, but I can't bear to feel her loss the way I would have to feel it to become your lover, to look at you beneath me and see her face." He laid his hands on the mantle, his body framed by fire, and pressed his forehead into the wood below her picture, as if he prayed for something that would never be given to him again.

She had not known vampires could cry. He shuddered when she pressed against his back, but Elizabeth slid her arms around his chest anyway and held him, whispered to him, letting him shake without tears, while she shed enough for them all.

* * *

Michael hesitated on the bottom step of the porch. He started to put a foot down, then he retracted it. Elizabeth watched him from the door, stepped through, closed it, and came to his side, linking her arm through his. "Don't you think we're a little overdressed for a hospital visit?"

He managed a smile, glanced down at his swallow-tailed tux and her sapphire gown framed by a dark velvet cloak. "Trust me. Vampires are inconspicuous when we want to be. Just hold onto my arm, and I'll keep people from noticing us."

She nodded. "Are you all right?" There was kindness in her face, and a reassuring, not pushy, touch on his arm. It gave him courage, as intended. Michael took a deep breath, nodded, and for the first time in fifty years, stepped off his porch.

Elizabeth held her silence while they walked, and he looked around at the world he had not seen in so long. "I'm like one of those poor dogs no one ever walks," he said at last, his shoes crisp and loud on the wet street. "Staying in the same yard, day after day. After awhile, you forget the outside world exists; you think that all the world walks by your fence."

She linked her fingers with his, listening as she had always listened to the last, poignant thoughts of the dying. He glanced down at her.

"I couldn't go out without missing her. It was easier to stay in, take beauty in small doses--a good passage in a book, a flower blooming in the window. Music--when I listen to some of our favorite pieces, it's like I'm with her again. I get that feeling I had with her, that it's possible to become more than I am, more than I ever thought possible. It's one of the most wonderful feelings, and yet the saddest. Have you ever felt that?"

"My yearning never had a face," Elizabeth said quietly. "I guess that's why death drew me. It puts me close to something that's real, definable yet infinitely mysterious and tragic, and it matched the way that yearning felt for me." She shrugged and the wind chased ice from the trees. She crunched it under her slippers. "I think I like not having to wear a jacket."

"At first you miss it," Michael said. "But then you start to recognize the advantages. She and I used to make snow angels, naked. Snow feels incredible against the skin."

Elizabeth laughed at his grin. "You were like a boy with her, I can tell."

"You're always a child when you think you have forever. But no one is given forever." He looked off into the darkness, and she knew that it was the darkness of his soul he saw.

"Will you tell me how she died?" His cream scarf blew back against her bosom, where she had her body pressed against his arm.

"We lived in Germany for a while," he cleared his throat. "We wouldn't have stayed when the Inquisition was at its height, but Peter and Kirsten were our friends, and they made us godparents to their first child. We were so close, eventually we revealed to them who we were. My...wife used the power she had as a vampire to help Kirsten conceive, and then served as midwife to bring her child into the world.

"Celeste was a wondrous babe. We were not her parents, but everything about her called to us. We adored her.

"During the Inquisition, it was proclaimed that, when a woman or man was convicted of witchcraft, the accuser took the witch's property. Kirsten was a woman of property and, to keep it simple, she had a jealous neighbor.

"The mob broke in while Peter was away," Michael shook his head. "It's always amazing, how the horrific stands just behind the everyday courtesies. My wife had made them a stew, because she liked to cook, and Kirsten always sent something back in the dish. This time Peter brought us some small polished stones Kirsten had dug from the creek. My wife was so delighted, we accompanied him back to his house to thank her.

"Kirsten was not hauled away for a trial. It was when the Inquisition was at its worst, when a village in Germany might have only men in it, because the women had all been accused and murdered. The mob broke in, beat Kirsten mortally. She hid the baby in the stove. When we got there, she thrust the child in my wife's arms and begged us to see her safe, no matter what. Kirsten died as my wife swore that we would."

Elizabeth leaned her head on his shoulder and he took the comfort, circling her shoulders with his arm. Her cloak blew around them.

"Peter stared at Kirsten's body, didn't break. He said he had to go out while I dealt with her. When I went to find him, he was gone. I told my wife I would go find him, and that she should get the child's things and meet us at the bridge at the outskirts of town.

"She got there first, and Peter second, with the mob. I got there in time to see the end. Peter screamed that she was a vampire, she had deceived Kirsten, taught her witchcraft, made her drink blood. When the mob closed in, she was screaming, but not for her own life." Michael looked up at the stars, his eyes glistening, and Elizabeth slid her arms around his waist, holding him tightly as they walked.

"She screamed, 'No, Peter, wait--the baby!' Even then, she was more concerned about Celeste than about her own life. But he was beyond hearing and it's all too quick.

"Much, much later," he swallowed, "I forgave Peter his madness, because I understood it. I plunged into the mob like a ravening beast, not caring that I tore men and women to pieces trying to get to her. But I was too late. The handful of seconds it took me to reach her ended her. They ran her through the heart with a pike and the pike pinned the two of them together. She had the baby under her cloak."

Elizabeth stopped him from using his sleeve, pulled his kerchief from inside his coat and wiped the tears from his face for him. Michael managed a crooked smile. "It's been awhile since I've worn anything formal."

"What did you do then?" she asked gently.

"I stayed in my castle in England for years, much as I did here. I had such rage, and I knew she wouldn't approve of what I'd do with it. Then I stayed in, as I said, because I couldn't bear to see anything she might have enjoyed, disliked, or reacted to, in any way. After a time, people became too nosy and I came here. She always wanted to see this country. She should have had forever to do so."

* * *

Walking through a hospital at the dead of night, with its white halls and the dark shadows of nurses, was familiar to Elizabeth. The man beside her seemed part of it, too. They moved silently, at home in its embrace.

The infant critical care area had a nurse on duty, but Michael merely laid a hand on her shoulder and she slumped in a faint. "We'll do this quickly," he assured Elizabeth. "She'll wake before any other child needs her."

She took him to Letty, and he stood over the plastic bassinet lined with a yellow teddy bear blanket for long minutes, staring at the unnaturally small baby with her overlarge IV drip, and tubes running from her. He bent at last, removed those things, and raised her in his arms.

Michael's blue eyes softened as they gazed upon the baby's face, and Elizabeth's heart cracked open. She had not known it was possible to fall in love with a man so quickly. She had hoped for it, for Letty's sake, knowing it would help the magic. He might not be able to love her, but she could love him, and maybe that would be all Letty would need.

As if in agreement, for the second time in her very short and difficult life, little Letty's eyes opened. She bestowed a wise and otherworldly look upon him, and Michael's lips tugged up in a gentle smile.

"Oh, Montrose," Elizabeth breathed, her throat thick with tears. "It is going to work."

He froze as if she had cast a spell of stone on him. Elizabeth caught Letty, easing her out of his nerveless fingers. "What is it? Michael, what is it?"

"Put her down," he rasped. "Now."

Elizabeth obeyed, and as soon as she slid her fingers from beneath the child, the stone shivered and broke. Michael seized her by the shoulders. "What did you call me?"

"Michael what--"

"No!" He shook her. "No. You called me Montrose."

Elizabeth frowned, then nodded. "I . . . I guess I did. I--"

"No one living knows that name. No one. It died with her. I couldn't bear to hear anyone say it the way she. . . the way you just did. Say it again. Say it."

Elizabeth started to feel as unsteady as the man holding her. "Montrose," she whispered. Then she said it again. "Montrose."

It came off her tongue with a faint accent that she did not have, and the more she said it, the more pronounced it became, the more her voice melted over it, making it soft and lilting, adoring, devoted. The yearning rose to the surface, summoned by the chant of his name, and crashed over her. He yanked her to him with brutal force and devoured her mouth, his arms clasping her silk clad body, softness against hardness, male and female, two parts of one whole that had found one another again, by coming back to the same moment of decision where they had last parted.

It was a kiss of devotion and loss, a kiss of utter and true love, a kiss that shattered the wall of her memory. Elizabeth remembered, not all the details of her life that had ended two hundred years ago, but the essence of her soul. Who she was, who she had been to him, what they had been to each other.

"Montrose," she sobbed. "Oh, God." She knotted her arms around his neck, and he buried his face in her shoulder, two seeds grown up into one tree, trunks twined and merged into one, rooted together in the beginnings and endings of the earth's turning.

It was the baby's cry that roused her at last. Elizabeth blinked, managed to back off from him enough to wipe her eyes, though he kept her fast in his embrace. She comforted the baby with a hand on her brow. "Sweet Letty, don't cry."

"Ah, God in heaven," his voice broke. Michael's eyes worshipped the both of them. "Letty. Dearest love, that was your name. Letitia Fall. My Letitia."

He nearly crushed her again, but she didn't care. Her heart was uncrushable, bursting with the strength that his love gave her. Her Montrose. Hers. The yearning answered, fulfilled.

The baby in the next bassinet pierced the charged air with a thin, whining cry. Elizabeth turned her head toward the feverish infant, a crack baby. She took a shaky breath, looked up at Michael. He nodded. "We must do it," he whispered. "She brought us back together. We owe it to her. I have everything I ever wanted in this moment. Everything."

"Me, too." She laid her head against his, curled her fingers against his neck to hold his face to hers, squeezing the single moment of joy.

At last, he turned her, so her back was pressed against him, and they stood over Letty. Michael lifted his walking stick before them and drew it into two parts, revealing a wooden dagger within, ornately carved and the length of a short sword. Letty watched them with her all-knowing eyes. Elizabeth felt the magic in the room and Michael's solid strength behind her. She trembled. "Don't worry, dearest," he murmured against her hair. "It will be quick. I won't let it hurt."

"I'm not afraid to die. I just. . . oh, Montrose, I don't want to lose you again."

"We'll find each other. We did this time, we will again."

"You swear?"

"I promise. You found me, love," his arm tightened around her. "Next time, I'll find you."

She laid her shaking hands on his wrists, to share in driving the stake through both their bodies. "I love you, Montrose."

"WAIT!" The scream burst into the nursery. Michael whirled Elizabeth behind him and leveled the wooden dagger at the threat coming through the door. An out-of-breath Moira, bearing miles of dark hair, wild blue eyes, and an armload of books and papers, skidded to a halt at the dagger's point. "Wait," she gasped.

The nurse groaned, shaking her head to clear the faint. Michael shot a glance at her and she thumped back into unconsciousness.

"Moira," Elizabeth pushed past him, trying to gather wits scattered by Moira's interruption of her decision to die. "We have to do this. We don't have much time. These other children--"

"You don't have to die," Moira grabbed her hand. "The spell wasn't a spell. It was a true story. Liz, are you Letitia?"

"She is," Michael answered, and drew Elizabeth back against him, his hands caressing her white shoulders. Moira's eyes flicked over him, then back to Elizabeth. "I can see that." She drew a deep breath.

"Ok. The legend said that two vampire lovers willing to die for a baby could heal her with their blood. You a/ready died for her. Elizabeth... you, as Letitia, died trying to protect her. Montrose--that's Michael, here--"

"I know," Elizabeth smiled up at him, caressed his chin with her fingers. He dipped his head to her touch.

"--died for her in another way," Moira continued, unchecked. "He locked himself in, refused to live in any way that mattered, but he felt a debt was owed to Peter and Kirsten."

Michael raised his head. "Peter went mad," Moira said, nodding. "But he bedded a prostitute before he hung himself in her bedchamber, a prostitute that later bore his child." She shifted her attention back to Elizabeth. "Michael stayed alive to ensure the descendants of Peter Gruber were cared for and protected. As a result, the Gruber family is quite wealthy and well known. However," she raised an eyebrow at him, "You've never met any of them?"

Michael shook his head. "I was just kept informed of their progress."

"Letty's mother turned herself in tonight. She's one of Peter Gruber's descendants, a teenage runaway."

Moira pointed at the baby. "You are standing next to the great-times- ten-or-so grandchild of Peter Gruber. All you have to do to pay the debt is to place a drop of your blood on her forehead. The legend reads that, once you find each other, you'll have a chance to save her, and yourselves, again."

Two babies started to cry, and monitoring equipment beeped. Elizabeth blinked, drawing a blank on their next move. Michael, fortunately, was more prepared for the change of plan. He bent and kissed her hand, and before she could gasp, sank a tooth into her palm. He closed her fingers over it, straightened and did the same to himself.

He drew her to Letty's crib, stood on the opposite side, and raised Elizabeth's hand to meet his palm. She met his gaze, and laced her fingers to his. They brought their joined hands down close to Letty's upturned, watching face. A long moment later, a single drop of blood squeezed from their matched palms and splashed on the baby's forehead. Letty's translucent eyelids reacted with a slow blink.

Power swept over them. Elizabeth caught the edge of the crib, and the world flashed and tilted. She choked on the sudden vivid flood of memory of all that had gone before, images so fast and furious she lost where, and when she was. Michael's strong hand reached through, caught hers, steadied her, and slowly the world came back into focus.

Letty's eyes were scrunched tight, as a newborn's eyes would be, and the little chest rose and fell on its own, a tiny bellows pumping. "Presto," Moira murmured, wide-eyed.

The nurse muttered, curled her hand on the desk and started to push herself up. Michael drew Elizabeth out of the room, Moira slipping out with them.

The nurse checked on the crying babies, not noticing her audience. When she saw Letty without her tubes, she frantically checked vitals, checked the chart. Then her look of astonishment was replaced with wonder, and a frantic buzzing for the doctor on call. Elizabeth clutched Moira's hand.

Michael turned Elizabeth away from the glass to face him. Her delight mirrored the warmth on his face. Moira retreated to a respectful distance.

"I . . . I guess this means you'll have to put up with me for all eternity," Elizabeth managed. She stared up at him, amazed.

Michael bent his head to hers, those firm lips a moment away from her mouth. "If I can endure your obsessive need for chocolate," he murmured, mischief and joy in his eyes, "I'm sure you can handle my ill temper. Oh, and my underwear on the floor. If I wear any."

Her laughter came against his mouth, and Elizabeth threw herself into his kiss, a kiss that melted away the sorrow of two hundred lonely years and brought peace, in the way that only love can.


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