Much thanks owed to Sleepy Bibliophile for being a consistently excellent beta. Please forgive any errors we may have overlooked during our combined editing efforts.
Reviews/feedback are always appreciated and highly encouraged.
"Only if you wish, he says. I would never try to bind you down here. She gazes at him. The fire in her eyes is a burnished red, like her mother's spring-damp roses. Of course, she says, and pulls out her carving knife to slice the fruit open."
- Keaton Michael, Dictionary Poem - Pomegranate
Elyse was seated comfortably in the floral armchair closest to the fire in her sister-in-law's parlor, idly thumbing through the tome resting in her lap. The volume was one her fiancé of three months, the charming and well-connected Lord Gregory Ashton, had recommended she read. It was a strange text, a study of different shrubs and flowers, all with intriguing connections to the myths and folklore of the eastern part of the continent. Lord Ashton had found the Baroness' romanticized and exaggerated account of she and Elyse's misadventure to the summer palace of the vampire king, Count Dracula, quite humorous and had made it a habit of mocking the ladies with book recommendations surrounding the supernatural and the occult ever since.
The Baroness, of course, had no stomach for such things, declaring resolute in her desire – naturally post-teasing – to forget the entire affair.
Her mysterious "accident" at the ball had surprisingly inspired the Baron to abandon his mistress and return to his wife shortly after the news of her taking ill had reached his ears. While the couple had enjoyed some months of marital fidelity, both man and wife proved far too rooted in their respective bad habits and by autumn of the following year, Charles had once more begun to wander. Falling head over heels in love with an opera singer proved to be his undoing, and when he had all but abandoned his wife to pursue the lovely soprano, Violet had decided enough was enough.
Just last month, she had finally confided in her friend that like her husband, she too had chosen to take a lover, although the Baroness refused to reveal the identity of the cad to Miss Dormer. Elyse wasn't particularly injured by her friend's sudden indiscretion. She had always known Baroness Hays to be of the fickle and amoral sort. In truth, it was something she had always admired in some strange sort of way – that sense of reckless abandon, the freedom of spirit.
Yet, Elyse Dormer's experiences in Budapest had changed her. She remained the same loving daughter and devoted friend she had always been, but her encounter with the son of the devil had left her suddenly docile, contemplative even. The woman often found herself struggling to be fully present in the moment as she had once been. To her friends and family, it was as though she were somewhere else, always on the fringes of distraction.
In truth, even with her upcoming nuptials, her father's work abroad, her energetic nieces and nephews, and her best friend's infidelities and near-shattered marriage – none of that could fully pull her from her thoughts of Count Dracula. Not for long, anyway.
It had been over a year since that night in Budapest and he had yet to make contact with her. She still owed him a favor and if there was one thing Elyse detested it was being in someone else's debt for longer than was necessary. But if Miss Dormer was anything, she was forbearing, and so she continued to endure the sound of her best friend prattling away about the latest gossip from town as she perused the book in front of her.
Violet took a seat on the chaise lounge with a dramatic sigh.
"Honestly, I don't know why I bother going out into society anymore. Everyone treats me like I'm some sort of social pariah. I don't see how that's fair. It's not my fault my insipid husband can't keep what little is in his trousers to himself. I mean really. He is so selfish. Never thinks of me at all."
"Well, in Charles' defense, Vi, you aren't exactly a paragon of virtue," Elyse countered, looking up from her book. The historical connections between wolfsbane and vervaine would clearly have to wait.
"I'm just following his lead," the Baroness insisted, though she smirked a little at her friend's comment. "I don't see why men are celebrated for their affairs, whereas we women are forced to live forever unsatisfied and silent. It's unfair."
"It is the way of the world."
"Well, just because that is the way society decides things must be, doesn't mean I have to condone or live by such hypocrisy. If Charles insists on taking lovers while being the talk of the town, I don't see why I can't do the same."
"You've been very good about keeping your affair hush hush from most polite society," Elyse pointed out with a sly grin. "You won't even tell me the man's name!"
"He made me swear not to. If the wrong person discovered us, it could ruin us both. Honestly, Elyse, I don't need any more scandal in my life, thank you."
"Is he really such a prominent figure?"
"Quite so," Violet answered with pride. "Fortunately, there's no nagging wife to ruin everything – only a fiancée who remains utterly ignorant."
"I don't know whether I pity her or if I'm grateful on her behalf," she admitted, resting her chin on her hand as she leaned to the side a bit. "Hopefully she's no one we know, or that would be most awkward."
"Indeed… ah! Lord Ashton! What a pleasure it is to see you," Violet called as her eyes darted toward the door at the other end of the room. She extended her hand out to Elyse's intended with a radiant smile.
"Baroness. I had no idea you would be here at this hour," Lord Ashton announced, nodding in her direction before his eyes caught Elyse's.
"Your charming fiancée invited me over to dine with you all this evening, and to help with the wedding details."
"The Baron still chasing that soprano about the country?"
"Well, I'm sorry to hear it. Good evening, my dear," and he leaned forward to place a chaste kiss on Elyse's waiting hand before returning his attention to the woman seated on the chaise lounge.
"Violet was just telling me how hypocritical it is that you men can parade about with your whores and concubines, but if a woman takes a lover, that makes her an outsider," Elyse explained. "Although I don't necessarily agree that liaisons in general are a recommended practice, especially when there are other parties that could be injured by association, I suppose I can appreciate the sentiment."
"Honestly Baroness, I must insist that you cease in this poisoning of my future wife's unblemished mind. You keep this up and I will have to punish you, as your husband isn't here to do it for me," Lord Ashton teased, making sure his back was to Elyse so she couldn't see the look in his eyes.
"You mustn't tease me, Lord Ashton. It's cruel," Violet pouted. "Elyse, tell your beast of a fiancé to behave more like a gentleman!" and she looked over at her friend as the man politely kissed her offered hand.
Miss Dormer only rolled her eyes, smiling faintly.
"Gregory, you must be gentle with her. Violet is feeling particularly delicate today," she answered playfully.
"I am not! Why I never… Elyse Dormer! Truly, you're as terrible as him. You two deserve each other!"
"I'd have to disagree, Baroness. I don't think anyone could ever by worthy of my little sister," a voice called out from the hall as Elyse's elder brother and master of the house, Christopher, entered the room. He had a handful of letters in his possession as he made his way over to the company. "No offense of course, Gregory," and he extended his hand to his sister's intended.
"None taken, old chap," Lord Ashton said with a laugh.
Christopher then handed Elyse the afternoon post, as it was all addressed to her. Most of the letters were responses to the wedding invitations she had sent out two weeks ago, save one. The Honorable Elyse Dormer had been meticulously written across the front of one envelope in particular, the script drawn out in a neat and precise hand, unmistakably masculine, yet still elegant.
The handwriting of a gentleman.
Elyse would have recognized that scrawl anywhere, for how often had she studied a similar letter written in the same hand over and over again in those solitary moments of the night when all were asleep. Save she with her memories and the fantasies that always ensued.
The dragon insignia of the wax seal on the back confirmed all suspicion and the young woman felt her heart skip a beat as her breath caught in her throat.
The Count was the author of this note!
Was he in London? Had he come to claim the debt she owed him? What would he ask for? Would she be able to say yes?
Close to being overpowered by the anticipation, Elyse took a single deep and calming inhale before fighting to compose herself, not wishing to draw the attention of her present company. She broke the seal and carefully pulled the single piece of paper from its wrapping. Bringing the folded sheet to her nose, she stealthily inhaled the scent of the paper, curious to see if it smelled like him.
The young woman was pleased to find that it did, though just faintly – a dizzying blend of pine, leather, and a musky spice that immediately brought to mind memories of when they had last encountered one another.
The empty ballroom of the Vilkova Palace had been flooded with the last rays of the setting sun, streams of rose-colored light coming in through a broken window, catching the glistening crystals of the chandelier above. She could still see the Count's expression of solemnity in her mind's eye, recalling how he had studied the ash-littered dance floor, eyes filled with a loneliness she hadn't understood then but had come to empathize with after all this time.
The letter in her hand seemed to evoke more memories, like the way his gaze had become more animated when he looked at her, the playfulness in his expression, the way his words seemed to carefully balance that line between teasing and earnestness.
Before she could consciously reflect on the details of their kiss that had followed, her rational mind had already begun to reclaim control. In an effort to distract herself, her eyes poured over the single line of text in front of her. His note comprised of a line of verse from the bible, ironically enough, a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes –
Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.
So he had remembered their deal after all, and the time had finally come for him to collect.
Elyse could feel the heat in her cheeks deepen as she folded the note and slipped it into the hidden pocket of her skirt, eyes glazed over as her mind ran rampant with thoughts and questions.
He had told her that night in Budapest that this day would come – that he would ask her for a favor, though for what he had never explained. The only assurance he had provided was a promise that his demands would not conflict with her own interests or desires.
So why the cryptic bible verse? That it was better to not vow to do something at all versus making a promise and not keeping it? Did he doubt the sincerity of her word? Was he merely teasing her? Why had he not given her more of an explanation?
For the remainder of the evening and well into the night, Elyse found herself completely consumed in the mire of her own thoughts. Lying in bed for hours after the rest of the household had retired for the day, the stillness and solitude proved to do little for her nerves. She was a mess of anxiety and anticipation for the revealing of the Count's will, and secretly dreading that what he would ask of her would indeed be something she could not deliver.
It had been over a year since she had last seen him. Why had he waited so long to make contact? Why now?
Frustrated with her restless mind, Elyse groaned in agitation as she surrendered to her sleepless state and finally crawled out of bed. The room was cold, the burning embers within the fireplace providing little heat, as if the cold from the darkness consumed all. She grabbed her Parisian shawl from the edge of her bed – a Christmas gift from her father who was still away on business – and wrapped it around her shoulders in a futile effort to ward away the chill while making herself a little more decent.
Her aimless wandering about the room eventually brought her over to the window in some vain hope that the sight of the slumbering London town would distract her. The sky was momentarily clear and filled with stars, rooftops blanketed in the fresh snow that had fallen just hours ago. But the serene view offered her little comfort as she looked out at the night from her shadowed chamber, thoughts filled with the Count – his face, his words, the memories.
The letter he had sent must have been a courtesy, she concluded after some deliberation of thought. Perhaps it had been meant as a mode of caution, a friendly warning that the time was near and she needed to prepare herself.
Elyse decided in that moment that she was ready for whatever it was that he would ask of her. He had assured her that he wouldn't require her to do anything she did not wish to do, and though she had faith in his promise, a part of her wondered how he could possibly know the desires or intentions of her heart.
"Your eyes often betray you," his voice answered from behind and she jumped, startled by the sound and his sudden presence as she spun around quickly. He was standing in front of the entrance to her bedroom, which appeared securely shut from what she could tell.
She felt her jaw slacken in her surprise, lips parting in wonder.
"How… how did you get in here?"
"Through the door," he answered with a noted hint of cheek.
"It's after midnight! The servants… everyone has been asleep for hours. Who let you in? I thought your kind had to be invited in."
"The housekeeper invited me in," he explained in casual tones, taking a step forward as he removed his kid-gloves carefully.
"But Mrs. Jennings would never let a stranger enter at this hour – nor would she allow a man she doesn't know to help himself into the private chambers of…" but she paused as the realization skidded across her mind. "You did something to her."
The Count shrugged.
"I assure you, your Mrs. Jennings is perfectly safe. She just proved to be very – how shall I put this delicately? – simple-minded. Unlike her mistress, of course," and with a single elegant movement, his cloak and gloves found their way to the edge of her bed as he continued to approach, one single step at a time. "You however, Miss Dormer… you continue to impress me. A feat few of your sex could boast."
At last he stood before her, and though he remained a respectable distance from her person, Elyse could feel the power radiating from him. It had been over a year since they had last shared the same space and yet it felt as though it were yesterday.
In that moment, she could recall their past encounters with the utmost clarity and while she was certain she had changed in appearance and temperament, Count Dracula seemed completely unaltered. His presence was just as commanding as she remembered it, one look managing to simultaneously unnerve and ease her in a solitary wave of contradicting yet harmonious feeling.
Self-preservation had her wanting to step away from him, while instinct demanded she move closer. She remained, however, rooted to the spot, eyes full of feeling while the rest of her stayed very still, controlled. It was unprecedented how the mere manifestation of this man was enough to leave her feeling quite undone, yet Elyse found herself inexplicably determined to not let her weakness show. She couldn't explain where such a resolve came from, but the young woman never questioned it and her apparent lack of a notable reaction to his presence seemed to amuse him.
"Still strong willed," he mused softly. "So well contained, so controlled… despite the ferocity bubbling in the very heart of you. I believe I neglected to tell you this when last we met, Miss Dormer, but you truly would make an excellent vampire."
Although his comment took her aback, Elyse made certain she remained on point. It was the only thing she could do to keep from sounding too much like a simpleton.
"You really shouldn't be in here," she chided him carefully. "These are my private chambers and to be in here at this time of night without invitation… this is highly irregular, Count."
That charming smile of his grew more devilish.
"Ah, but what exists between you and I is beyond regular societal convention. Wouldn't you agree?"
Elyse found herself suddenly grateful for the darkness. With her back to the light of the street lamps just outside her window, her face was left in shadow which meant it would be impossible for him to see the way in which she blushed – unless he can see in the dark, some ironic voice in her head mocked.
But the look he was giving her made her feel exposed almost, as if he could see beyond her carefully constructed mask of disapproval and into the secret lusts of her very soul.
The intensity of his stare sent a small shiver down her spine as her conscious mind turned scarlet with the recollections of their kiss that evening in Budapest – the first part of her repayment to him for saving the lives of both her and the Baroness. Why her mind was suddenly possessed by the memory she didn't know, but she couldn't stop it. Something about this man made it near impossible to ignore her baser instincts.
Their kiss, she recalled, had started out as a single one, a pair of unfamiliar lips lightly pressed one against another, until he had pulled away just briefly as if to catch her reaction. Elyse had thought that would be the end of it, but before she could open her eyes, she had felt him lowering his mouth again toward hers, the approach slow, deliberate – his hand gently holding her chin, leading her back to him.
His lips had sealed over hers once again, this time with a sudden boldness that had stolen what was left of her air, the arm he had coiled around her waist tightening its hold as he had taken her mouth with a shocking kind of expertise. His kiss and the kisses that had followed had been skilled and hungry, a slanting, suckling possession that had left her wilting into him without thought as her arms coiled around his neck in order to keep herself upright.
The pleasure at being so near to him, she recalled, had been alarming and mind numbing, his steady hands and strong arms having made her feel oddly safe when she should have recoiled for fear of her virtue. But Elyse had been unable to withstand the temptation he had presented; and even now with the mere phantom memories of his tongue in her mouth and the uncharacteristic greed it had inspired in her… the memories were enough to steal her breath once again.
His eyes seemed to darken while her mind recollected that night as if he could see her thoughts, the faint curve of his thin lips suggesting he approved of how well she remembered the event. But the Count never commented on her licentious contemplations or the poignant silence between them. Instead he returned her attention to the present.
"As gratifying as our last encounter was, I fear you are still indebted to me," he reminded her, voice low, deep.
Elyse unconsciously shook her head as if to dispel the lust of her thoughts before raising her chin so she could better meet his gaze.
"What would you have me do?" she asked him obediently, the mode of her query causing his smirk to soften some.
There was something in the Count's eyes she didn't quite understand – a hesitance that had not been there before and it made her curious. Something had changed in him after all, but what it was she could not yet account for. He appeared to be suppressing some secret desire before appearing more resolute, more business and less pleasure.
"I need you to help me save someone's life."
Elyse's brows furrowed a little in confusion at his request, but when she noted the earnestness in his expression, she found herself nodding in acquiescence without even taking a moment to consider the consequences.
"I am at your service, my lord."
Elyse was alone in her bedroom a short time later, fully dressed as she searched for her warmest coat, the snow having begun to fall once more outside. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness by this point as she reviewed the list of items she was to fetch from the guest room at the end of the hall which her fiancé was temporarily residing. How the Count knew Lord Ashton was even in possession of things like crushed cat's claw, essence of a Carpathian viola epipsila, and wolfsbane oil was beyond her, but she was granted little time to contemplate the coincidence further.
She only hoped she could slip into Gregory's room without rousing him.
Elyse wasn't exactly eager to explain to her future husband that she had gotten herself indebted to the prince of darkness and was about to leave the safety of her brother's home in the middle of the night, unchaperoned no less, to meet with a man she hardly knew.
Untucking her long braid from her coat before straightening the lapels and buttoning the front, Elyse quickly glanced out her window onto the street below to find that – as promised – the Count's carriage was outside the front of the house waiting to take her away. She slipped out of her room in silence, making a conscious effort to ensure her footfall remained soft as to not inform anyone of her departure.
Locating the guest bedroom in which Lord Ashton had taken up residence in was simple, but she was surprised to find the door locked – an odd occurrence, as he had never been in the habit of doing so before. But it was of little matter, she thought resolutely to herself as she removed a pair of hairpins from the pocket of her coat before crouching down so she could pick the lock – a skill the Baroness had actually taught her.
When the door was unlocked, she glanced both ways down the hall to make sure she was still alone before she entered her fiancé's chambers; the sound of his light snoring assured her that he was fast asleep. Without even looking at the bed, her eyes found the desk at the far end of the room closest to the window where he kept a collection of vials in a leather case. She opened it quietly and was pleased – and also astonished – to find that everything she needed was within, some of the contents containing peculiar labels…
White oak ash.
Elyse's brows furrowed for just a moment before she dismissed her curiosity, forcing herself to stay focused on her mission.
If someone's life was at risk, she didn't have time to suspect why her future husband was in possession of such an odd collection, nor could she question the Count's intention for borrowing the items. Determined to complete the task she had been charged with, she closed the case and prepared to leave when something on the floor caught her eye.
White stockings with lace on the ends just a few feet in front of her. And a little ways beyond that– a pair of linen pantalets, then a chemise… and a pair of male trousers?
She followed the trail of clothing with her eyes until at last her attention fell upon the bed where she discovered not only Lord Ashton, but also Baroness Hays, both asleep and seemingly nude beneath the covers.
Elyse became acutely aware of an unpleasant sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she took in the sight before her, realizing that Violet's secret gentleman lover was Lord Ashton. She clutched the case of vials tightly to her as if doing so would help to keep her steady and upright as she waited for the anticipated heartbreak to set in, but it never did.
But why? she wondered silently, trying to understand her own lack of a more visceral reaction. The answer was soon made clear. It was true, she had never loved Gregory; and her and Violet's friendship had never been quite the same since that night in Budapest. What was it the Count had said over a year ago that evening?
I know the likes of the right honorable Lady Violet, Baroness Hays may seem exciting, but she is a married woman of nine-and-twenty. Her marriage is in shambles and in order to feel better about herself, she derives pleasure from manipulating and ruining the lives of younger and prettier girls who are easy prey. You, Miss Dormer, are such easy prey. You are impressionable, naïve, and if you knew what was good for you, you would leave Lady Violet to her fate.
Elyse felt an involuntary shudder move through her as she began to connect the dots, recognizing the signs of the illicit affair between the couple in the bed as the stark reality before her shed light on what she had been too blind and disinterested to see.
Count Dracula had been right.
He had barely been in the company of herself and the Baroness and with little effort he had seen what Elyse had been incapable of realizing until this very moment.
The woman she had believed to be her friend had never been thus. The betrayal wounded Elyse's pride more than it did her heart, but she found that she did not have it in her to hate the woman before her in entirety. Miss Dormer was wiser now, after all, than she had been a year ago, that night she had risked everything to save the Baroness from shame and scandal.
Well, after this, she would be certain to never do so again. Nor would she protect Lord Ashton from the consequences of his actions.
Elyse straightened in her resolution before taking her leave, not even bothering to close the door behind her as she made her way out into the hall. The young woman was quick to banish all thoughts of Ashton and Violet, forcing herself to focus entirely on the task ahead as she left the safety of her brother's house and entered the small carriage waiting for her.
The driver offered no greeting or words of pleasantry, for which she was grateful. Silence was what she truly desired. Assuming the man already knew her destination, she uttered not a word as the horses began to move forward at a brisk pace down the dark and empty London street.
She arrived some twenty minutes later at what appeared to be Highgate Cemetery in the north part of town. Sliding along the bench so she could sit closer to the window, she could see the imposing view of the West cemetery entrance, a solitary figure standing near the gate as if in anticipation for their arrival. The carriage never slowed its pace as the horses made their way through the arched passageway, taking a hard right before reaching the colonnade. The driver then took them down Cuttings Road, a path lined with large tombs that soon took them north to the Egyptian Gate toward the back of the park.
It was on the avenue where she was dropped off without a word of explanation from the driver who then left the young woman alone in the center of a sea of tombs blanketed in white. The air was freezing and Elyse found herself regretting not taking the time to put on more layers. Determined to warm herself up and hopefully find the Count in the process, she began to make her way down the snow laden lane toward the Circle of Lebanon some yards ahead. It was unnerving, traveling alone at night through the sinuous path, surrounded by large trees which obstructed her view of the sky above, leaving her feeling alone and isolated amongst the dead.
It proved difficult to ignore the morbid imaginings that entered her mind as she continued secluded in this funerary landscape. How strange it was that something so macabre could be simultaneously so evocative, so beautiful. She could not recall a time in recent memory when she had had a chance to enjoy the beauties of the night undisturbed and unaccompanied. Was this what it was like to be one of the undying? An eternity in this darkened splendor, surrounded by death yet untouched by it, immune, unfaltering?
As Elyse made her way down the steps into the circle of vaults that surrounded the enormous cedar on the hill between, she found herself pondering on the existence of one such creature of the night, what it must be like to live forever in one's youth, unchanged by the unforgiving hand of time. An infinity without the sun seemed a small price to pay for immortality, but perhaps that was naïve of her to think so, for clearly these beings were not truly immortal. She had learned over the last year that they could indeed be destroyed, often hunted down by secret societies that feared what they could not understand.
Having walked the full circle of catacombs once through without any sign of Count Dracula, Elyse prepared to go explore a different part of the cemetery, but before she could reach the steps, she heard her name on the wind from somewhere behind her.
She turned to find a dark figure in the shadows of one of the vaults, the entrance which she had been certain had been sealed up previously now appearing to be open.
Elyse recognized those ethereal blue eyes the moment she saw them.
"Count," she called out.
"Miss Dormer," he said in acknowledgement, extending his hand out to her in beckoning. "Come quickly. Time is of the essence."
The young woman obeyed his command without question, making her way to him as quickly as she was able. He led her out of the snow and into the dimly lit catacomb, sealing the gate behind them as she took in her surroundings. The space was small, crowded with a number of elaborately decorated tombs, all of which were sealed save one. A trifling collection of candles had been precariously placed on the edge of this particular sarcophagus and within Elyse noticed a boy of barely thirteen.
He appeared dead – or at the very least close to it – his flesh pale and eyes closed in unconsciousness. The only sign of life she could detect was the faint rattle of a shallow inhale the boy took every few seconds.
She was about to ask what had happened to him and why he was in this frigid place when she noticed the dark crimson pooling near the center of his chest. Elyse gasped, covering her mouth in a brief moment of shock before curiosity set in and she found she was unable to resist the temptation to investigate further.
Strangely fascinated by the carnage before her, Elyse momentarily forgot that she was not alone, leaving her ignorant of the way in which the Count was observing her from a distance. His expression was one of carefully guarded intrigue, as if her reaction to the scene before her satisfied him for some inexplicable reason.
"Who would commit such an act of violence on one so young?" she asked after several moments of undisturbed silence. "Surely this sort of punishment doesn't suit whatever crime he could have committed."
"His crime is his existence," Dracula explained, the disappointment in his tone not lost to her.
"I can't believe he's still breathing. A wound like that would have killed any man! It looks like he's been stabbed in the heart."
"Staked would be the more appropriate term."
"Staked? You mean to tell me this boy is a vampire?"
"Dhampir, actually. Despite the circumstances, however, this lad is very fortunate. His attacker missed his heart just barely," and Dracula took a place at her side, moving one of the candles closer so she could see that indeed, beyond the gore, the boy's heart continued to beat.
Elyse swallowed hard in an effort to bite back the nausea that swept over her and she looked away briefly to collect herself.
"Do you know who did this?"
"Your fiancé." Elyse looked up at him in surprise and he met her gaze with what appeared to be indifference. "I neglected to congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials, by the way."
"No felicitations are necessary, I assure you," she answered with more passion than intended as she returned her attention to the unconscious boy before them. "I plan to break off our engagement in the morning."
"Not on account of the present circumstances, I hope?" he said, though she could have sworn there was a note of laughter in his tone.
"This only helps in strengthening my resolve. I know it is none of your concern, but when I went to fetch this from his chamber," and she placed the case of vials on the edge of the tomb, "I discovered the Baroness sharing his bed."
"The very one."
Dracula said nothing in response to this revelation and it made Elyse wonder – had he known? He didn't exactly seem surprised by the news. Perhaps he had anticipated a betrayal of this kind from the Baroness long before it had ever taken place?
But Elyse, unable to bear the tense silence now between them, continued.
"You warned me not to trust her that night, not to put myself at risk for her own safety, but I didn't listen. I suppose it could be worse. I suppose like this boy here, I too am more fortunate than I otherwise could be. The only thing that's been wounded is my pride. At least my heart is still safe," and she opened the case, removing the needed vials from within.
"I've found that agents of the Knights of the Holy Order tend to believe themselves not only above the law, but above usual conventions of morality. I am sorry for your sake that Lord Ashton could not see your worth. Perhaps if he had, he would have chosen to withstand the temptation the Baroness placed before him."
"They are both at fault, but it is of little matter," she insisted. "What do you need me to do to help save this boy?"
"I will need you to use the ingredients I listed out for you to create a serum which will help expedite his healing. Dhampirs are only half vampire – although their senses and natural abilities are amplified in comparison to the ordinary mortal, the younger ones tend to bleed out before they can heal, especially from wounds this deep."
"How did he become what he is?"
"Dhampirs are born, not made – a miracle against nature."
"But why would Gregory want to murder him if he is not even a vampire?"
"That is a story for another time. Suffice it to say, Lord Ashton is a member of a secret order of men and women hellbent on destroying myself and all those like me. They were nearly successful when last we met. This boy stands as evidence of their final efforts to finish the job. I'd create this serum myself, but the ingredients are difficult to come by and the need was urgent. And because Lord Ashton works for the Order, I knew he'd have what was required. Unfortunately," and he motioned to the vials in the case, "I cannot handle the containers that hold these materials without them being destroyed in my hands."
"Because of the crucifixes?"
"Then I shall be your hands," she insisted bravely, removing her gloves. "Tell me what I must do."
Count Dracula watched with unwavering attention as Elyse followed every instruction he gave her to the letter. Her focus on the task at hand was steadfast as she mixed the variety of ingredients together in the cylindrical beaker, using the glass stem of the dropper to ensure everything was properly blended together. When he had come to ask for her help earlier in the evening, he had braced himself for the arduous task of keeping her calm and commanding obedience, but there was no such need. She had followed his every direction without question, only ever contradicting him when he had momentarily critiqued her own competency in a fit of frustration.
But Elyse sympathized with his aversion when it came to relying on others. Yet her censure had been rationally delivered, and so he had fallen silent, left to watch as she went to work.
When the concoction was complete, he went to offer further commands, but she seemed to be of the same mind as he, for without need of guidance, she filled the dropper with the appropriate amount of serum and then carefully emptied the contents into the dhampir boy's open chest as if instinct had told her to do as much.
As she observed the miraculous occurrence of the boy's flesh healing before her very eyes, the Count only continued to observe her with an unwavering intensity. Any private ponderings on his part were brought to a sudden halt, however, when the boy awoke with a start, startling Miss Dormer visibly as she jumped in astonishment.
The dhampir had reached up to grab hold of her arm, his eyes glowing with a hunger the Count recognized at once. The boy needed to feed and Elyse, with her warm and fragrant flesh was the perfect snack. In truth, the Count had intended on allowing the boy to feed from the Viscount's youngest daughter - perhaps her passing would provide the ample enough warning against the Holy Order and their efforts to eradicate him. But instead of abandoning this innocent lamb to the slaughter, he found himself intervening on her behalf as if it were instinctual.
With a movement barely discernible to the mortal eye, he snatched the boy's wrist, his powerful grip forcing the dhampir to release the young woman so she could step back and create some distance between herself and the hissing fiend still lying in the sarcophagus.
"Be still, child," the Count consoled in his native tongue, his voice low and rich like velvet as he allowed his gaze to linger on Miss Dormer for a few seconds longer before diverting his attention to his charge. "She is not for eating."
"But, master," the boy whimpered in English. "She smells so good… let me taste her…" and he sat up as if he intended to leap in her direction, but Dracula held him steadfast.
"No," he commanded harshly, eyes glowing for just a moment and Elyse watched as the tension in the young dhampir's frame softened in response. "She is forbidden."
"But I'm so hungry," the boy insisted.
Dracula placed his forearm in front of the dhampir's face in response.
"Then feed," he said.
Elyse watched with unbroken concentration as the boy pushed the Count's sleeve up to his elbow before biting down into his wrist greedily. The sight immediately brought to mind the scene she had happened upon that night in Budapest when she and the Count had discovered Violet being fed on by the villainous Niklaus. Before, the mere thought of a person consuming on the blood of another disgusted her, but to see it now for herself… it was frightening, unsettling even, but also deeply sensual.
The slurping and sighs of contentment aroused her in an unexpected way and soon she found that her eyes had left the boy and were now fixed on the Count. The way he was looking at her seemed to banish the chill that had previously settled in her bones. Her cheeks grew hot and her eyes quickly fell away in maiden embarrassment. In a desperate effort to at least give off the appearance of composure, she began to busy herself with the used vials from Lord Ashton's case of peculiarities as the dhampir child finished.
When Dracula had to forcefully remove the boy's mouth from his arm, the child pouted in protest as he climbed out of the coffin. There seemed to be a silent conversation of looks passing between master and underling, for when the boy made a move toward Elyse, the Count growled in warning.
"I said her blood is forbidden," he reminded the dhampir. "You will not disobey me again or there will be consequences."
The boy whined his disappointment but relented, albeit begrudgingly. With a silent command from the Count and a final warning look, the dhampir took the hint and soon disappeared into the night without even offering a word of gratitude for all that had been done to save his life.
When they were at last alone once more, Elyse had finished cleaning up and she found that her eyes seemed to instinctually return to the man before her. He remained upright as if determined to give off the impression that he was perfectly well, but the way he leaned against the tomb spoke volumes.
"Your arm," she began, noting the vicious looking gash in his wrist.
Dracula looked down at the wound with vague interest.
"It will heal in a moment."
"But he took so much of you," she pointed out.
"I've endured worse."
She paused before daring to ask –
"Is there anything I can do to help you?"
The Count smiled.
"My dear, you have done more for me in a trifling half-hour than I could have ever expected of you. As far as I'm concerned, you have fulfilled your end of our bargain. There is no need for you to feel obligated to linger. Go… the carriage should be waiting to take you home."
Dracula half expected her to submit to his will as she had done a number of times already this evening, but he was pleasantly surprised when she placed the case of vials down on the ground before undoing the buttons of her coat. With noted curiosity, he watched as the heavy wool garment proceeded to slide off her shoulders and down her arms, pooling on the cold stone floor beneath her. Her heart was pounding wildly in her chest – not out of fear, but out of something that sounded a great deal like anticipation.
Elyse took a step forward.
"I don't know much about vampires," she admitted, cautiously moving toward him as she began to roll up the left sleeve of her dress. "But I know that they need blood to survive. The loss of your own has affected you – even I can see that, try as you might to conceal it from me. Please," and she raised her wrist toward him in offering. "Let me help you as you once helped me. No further debts, no strings. Take my blood as final payment for saving my life that night when you could have left me at the mercy of Lucas. I will consider my debt to you repaid."
Count Dracula's demeanor proved indecipherable. It was impossible for her to even guess his thoughts at that moment. But his gaze remained intense, dominating, and yet she never shrank as she stood before him.
"Do not presume to know what it is I need, Miss Dormer," he stated evenly, but she took his comment for the deflection that it was and with a boldness she hadn't known was in her until that moment, she reached for his hand and positioned it between them so she could place the wrist of her left hand in his palm.
His brow rose in evident surprise. He struggled to remain aloof, but not even he could resist the faint smirk that was now tugging at the corner of this lips.
"Still eager to offer yourself to a stranger?" he asked and she smiled, blushing a little as she recognized the words he had spoken to her that night of the masquerade ball.
Looking up, she held his gaze with a noted archness.
"I am feeling uncharacteristically generous," she replied, echoing his words from that fateful evening and the way he smiled openly now made her feel brave. "After all, I think after the things we've shared, we have passed into the realm of acquaintances at least. Wouldn't you agree?"
The amusement in his eyes darkened a little and it made a small shiver run down her spine.
"Indeed. Very well, I will accept your offer. But I will not feed from your wrist," and he released her hand. "Free your throat."
Elyse hesitated for just a moment before reaching up for the small buttons that ran along the front of the high collar of her dress. She fumbled with the first two but managed to steady her nerves as she continued along the way, stopping at the button that rested in the center of the visible dip between her neck and collarbone. Pausing to see if that was far enough, her heart skipped a beat when he gave no sign of approval. Swallowing hard, she continued slowly, unfastening the next button, then the one below that until just a hint of cleavage could be seen.
The young woman stopped once more, waiting for some indication that she had gone far enough, but he offered her no such thing. His eyes had fallen from her face to instead study the movement of her hands, and with the revelation of a shadowed line between the tops of her breasts, his irises had begun to glow brilliantly in the darkness. The faint light of the candles on the tomb beside them continued to cast dark and sensuous shadows over the angular parts of his face.
The way he openly scrutinized her person made her flush in embarrassment, but her hands had a mind of their own. Her fingers undid one last button and then her lungs seized, holding her breath as she watched his tongue unconsciously trace the curve of his lower lip. The beat of her heart quickened and her skin tingled from the crown of her head to secret places untouched. He offered a scarcely noticeable nod as a sign that that was far enough and she allowed her hands to fall to her sides, her own eyes transfixed on the changing expressions of his face.
He had yet to return his gaze to her own, and when she realized that he must have been undressing her in his mind, Elyse's face heated. At last he moved, two hands reaching up to the now parted portion of her dress and with great care he opened the garment more fully, revealing the pale flesh of her chest, neck, and part of her shoulders to the freezing air. His skin never touched hers, something Elyse secretly mourned for reasons she couldn't quite fathom, but then his eyes finally met hers again and she nearly swooned.
He never said a word, but his gaze communicated everything she needed to know. His approval of her proved profound and when he firmly gripped her upper arms so he could pull her closer, Elyse grew faint.
"Your heart is racing," he stated softly.
"I'm nervous," she admitted.
"Don't be," and he gently cradled the back of her skull as his other hand slid over her bared shoulder, pushing the rebellious strands of hair that had escaped her braid away from her neck as he tilted her head to one side.
His skin was cool to the touch, and with a soft caress he allowed his hand to glide down the side of her neck and onward, his palm gently teasing away the material of her dress so he could free more of that unblemished skin.
Dracula leaned forward slowly and brushed his lips against her ear and she felt a jolt strike through her body at the contact, a tremor that had her leaning into him.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" he whispered into her hair before placing a breathless kiss to her temple.
"Yes," was all she could manage to say, but her consent was all he wanted. There was no need for further dialogue.
Elyse's brain grew dizzied and feverish as he placed open-mouthed kisses along the column of her throat, tracing her jugular vein with the tip of his tongue.
"Will it hurt?" she managed to ask him when she felt the dull rake of his teeth lightly brush against the side of her neck and she became aware of the way in which his lips curved against her skin in reply.
"Only for a moment," he promised, and then without warning he bit her.
Elyse awoke to the sound of shrieking down the hall just before dawn that morning. It took her a moment to become fully cognizant of the cause for the ruckus, for her mind and body were feeling particularly sluggish as she rolled over to bury her head beneath the covers. She could scarcely remember how she had gotten home and dressed in her nightclothes in the first place, but she hardly cared. It was too early for this kind of noise and she mumbled an oath under her breath as she struggled to block out the conversation happening at the other end of the house.
"Mr. Dormer! Mr. Dormer!" Mrs. Jennings, the housekeeper, could be heard shouting from the end of the hall. "Oh my god, have you two no shame? Mr. Dormer! Come at once!"
"Jennings, you old hag, shut up!" Violet hissed. "Gregory! Gregory wake up! Why in God's name is your door opened? I thought you locked it!"
"You despicable harlot! After everything Lady Elyse has done for you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Mr. Dormer! Mr. Dormer!"
"Mrs. Jennings, it's barely seven. What on earth is all this commotion about?" Elyse could hear her sister-in-law, Moira, calling out sleepily as she made her way down the hall.
Her arrival upon the scene of the crime, however, proved loud enough to wake the dead and though someone had slammed Lord Ashton's bedroom door shut, the shouting continued within the chamber, though it was muted now.
Elyse, gradually recalling the events of last night, relented a sigh of defeat as she acknowledged that there would be no more sleep for her this morning – as much as she desired it. Her engagement to Lord Ashton was officially over – although thank heavens, she mused silently, because the last thing she wanted to do today was deal with more tedious wedding preparations.
She sat up slowly, trying to tune her ears to the sound of her sister-in-law's thorough chastening as she rubbed the dull ache from the side of her mostly healed neck. Elyse glanced down to see that she had indeed been put back into her night clothes, though the front of her shift had come untied in the night, leaving her dangerously indecent. As she tidied herself, she struggled to recall how she had gotten home in the first place after spending a good forty-five minutes freezing her backside off in Highgate cemetery just hours ago; but then she noticed a letter on her bedside table.
Her name was scrawled across the front in a familiar hand and like a warm wave of a tropical sea, the memories came flooding back –
Dracula had fed from her and she had almost fainted in his arms. He had carried her home – though when she tried to recall the trip itself, she found she could not – but he had carried her back into the house through the front door and up the stairs himself. The undressing and dressing bits were a blur, but he had not taken advantage of her in her weakened state – she was at least certain of that. And before she could thank him or bid him goodnight, she had surrendered to unconsciousness.
Elyse reached for the letter and quickly unfolded it, eyes pouring over the handsome script as her sister-in-law's muffled shouting fell on deaf ears.
I fear that in my moment of selfishness, I neglected to thank you properly for your generosity this evening. I mean to rectify this at once and I pray you will forgive me for not doing so in person. You were positively indispensable and I am grateful that I was able to rely upon you.
You are an inimitable young woman with an open mindedness that I find utterly refreshing; and it is a pity that Lord Ashton has proven incapable of recognizing the greatness within you.
Seeing as how all obligation between us has now been dissolved, I recognize that I have no right to ask more of you than I already have, but if you have no objections, I would wish to see more of you in the near future – perhaps in a public setting for the sake of your reputation. But if you wish to be left in peace now that your debt has been paid, I will of course respect your wishes.
If your desires mirror my own, however, and should you want to continue our correspondence – be it by the pen or in person – a word is all I require. Please send your reply in the pre-addressed envelope I have provided on your desk. I eagerly await your response.
Until then, I remain your obedient servant,
"This is intolerable. I demand you leave this house at once or I shall call the authorities to have you arrested for trespassing," Elyse's sister-in-law shouted as she exited from Lord Ashton's bedchambers. "Christopher will hear of this!"
"Moira, if you would just listen to me!" she could hear Violet protesting, the voices nearing her own door. "He overpowered me! This is not my fault!"
"Oh please! Don't insult me with your lies. I always knew you were never good enough to by my sister-in-law's companion. This proves it! You are nothing more than a mercenary trollop, madam, and I will not listen to your excuses for a moment longer! Now gather your belongings and get out of my house or I will throw you out as you are!"
"Violet, just do as she says," Gregory called from down the hall.
"No! This is an outrage!"
Elyse, who had just finished fetching a piece of paper to write her response to the Count, quickly grew impatient with the disputations outside her door. Throwing on a robe so she could make herself more presentable, she then stepped out into the hall abruptly to the astonishment of all and was granted for her presence a tense silence that fell over the company.
With little ceremony, she removed her engagement ring from her finger and tossed it onto the floor in her ex-fiancé's direction, a single look from her being all he needed to know that their engagement was officially at an end and he was no longer welcome. When Lord Ashton had reentered his room to gather his things, shutting the door behind him, Elyse turned to the Baroness.
The redhead opened her mouth to offer an explanation, but Elyse interjected before she could get a word in.
"It's over, Violet," she announced calmly. "I am done saving you. I don't want your excuses and I am tired of constantly putting my person and reputation in the path of danger for the sake of your whims. If you leave my brother's house this instant, I give you my word that not a single malicious utterance will ever leave my lips where you are concerned. But understand me, Baroness, I don't ever want to see you again."
Violet nodded in understanding, tears tumbling down her cheeks as she turned to depart. When she had disappeared down the hall, entering Lord Ashton's room to gather the rest of her garments, Moira turned to the young woman at her side with a look of concern.
"Elyse, darling…" she began, but Elyse interrupted her with the raising of her hand.
"I'm fine, Moira. I promise."
"Please inform Mrs. Jennings that I will be taking breakfast in my room."
"Of course, dear."
"And make sure Christopher doesn't hear of this whole fiasco until both Lord Ashton and Baroness Hays are off the premises."
"If you insist."
"I do. And Moira? Could you do something for me?" she called as she reentered her bedroom to scribble the word "yes" down on a piece of paper.
"Anything, Elyse. I'll send the cancellation notices for the wedding out today."
"Thank you. But before you do that, would you please give this letter to Andrews to post as soon as possible?" and she tucked her reply to the Count into the pre-addressed envelope he had left for her, sealing it as her sister-in-law approached.
"Yes, I'll have Jennings give it to him. But what is this?"
"With any luck… a new beginning."