A Literary Digression
Lucky fought her way to consciousness at the sound of her phone. The clock at her bedside read 4:37, and Josef was home, as far as she knew, so he was calling her, why?
"Hey doll," he said without preamble, "would you mind coming to my study?"
She tried unsuccessfully to keep the sleep out of her voice, although she was more successful at concealing the annoyance that always came with being awakened out of deep sleep. When you lived in a vampire's lair, she supposed you had to become accustomed to keeping odd hours. "Sure, darlin'" she replied. "Hungry?"
"Maybe. We'll see."
At least, she thought, that means he's alone. "Hmmm. Give me five minutes, okay?"
She ran a brush through her long hair and shrugged on a robe over her nightgown. He'd just have to take her without makeup, this time, she thought, frowning at her reflection in the mirror, then took the time to splash a little cold water on her face, toweling it dry.
Josef was at his desk in the study, perusing a thick sheaf of papers—contracts, Lucky supposed. The kind of thing he always said he had to read himself. A pile of file folders at least four inches thick sat at his right hand, next to his open laptop. As Lucky walked in, he glanced up from his reading, acknowledging her with a wry smile, and stood, the predator with perfect manners.
"Lucky," he said, "thanks for getting up." He gestured vaguely at the piles on his desk. "Some nights I don't know why I bother with business. I'll be up until noon with this stuff." He'd discarded his jacket, and his usually perfectly pressed shirt was wrinkled, bunched around his suspenders. His hair looked mussed, as though he'd been running his hands through it in frustration.
"I'm always happy to come see you." Lucky smiled at him. In the dim light from his desk lamp he looked even younger than usual. The shadows concealed the accumulated knowledge that often stained his eyes with unexpected age.
"It's good of you, nonetheless." He indicated a bookcase in one corner of the room. "Perhaps you'd care to select something to read?"
Lucky's eyes lit up. That bookcase held Josef's collection of valuable 19th century first editions, and no one was ever encouraged to touch it. Despite knowing her reverence for literature and books generally, Josef had been quite clear that this was forbidden territory. Of course, he'd noticed her hanging around the bookcase when she had the chance, straining to read the gold-stamped leather bindings, even as she carefully kept her hands clasped behind her back, making it as obvious as possible that she was not presuming to touch the treasured volumes. Now for the first time, she was being invited to take one into her hands, to read it as though it were any book. This time, after turning on a lamp next to the bookcase she held out one hand, not touching the bindings, but skimming along an inch away. She stopped and reached to pull out a volume carefully.
"So what did you pick?" Josef's voice came over her shoulder, with that amused tone he often employed around his freshies.
Lucky's hand stopped, arrested by his voice. "Dickens. The Old Curiosity Shop."
"Really? You couldn't do better than that?"
"I like Dickens. His plots are so incredibly intricate."
Josef scoffed. "Charlie was a hack," he said, walking over to stand behind her. He ran one hand down her arm, sliding it lightly over the satin of her thin robe to grasp her wrist. "And besides that, he was whipped," he breathed into her ear, in a tone that really, she thought, all at once trembling, had nothing to do with literature. "No taste in women." He moved closer, until she could feel the cool solidity of his chest against her shoulders. "But then again," and a slight chuckle rumbled through him, "he never needed to taste one." Lucky drew in a deep breath, and reached her other hand, her free hand, around the back of her neck to draw her hair to one side. She knew she should've taken the time to put it in its usual single braid. Her heart beat a little bit faster, and she heard the catch in his breath. Still, he did not enfold her in his arms, but only dropped a brief kiss on the taut skin of her bared neck. She went very still, expecting the sudden, silken shock of his fangs. "Ah, Lucky, you tempt me," he said, releasing her wrist and falling back half a step, "but not now. Not—yet." Josef shook his head to bring himself back to reason. "So tell me, why The Old Curiosity Shop?"
Lucky shrugged and looked back over her shoulder at him. His eyes seemed a little brighter, a little less tired. She suspected he'd called her simply for the pleasure of having another person around as he worked. She knew sometimes that when he was by himself, his demons came out to play, and he got lonely. She'd been there, she could understand that, and if he wanted distraction… "I guess I'm just sentimental. You know, the death of Little Nell and all that."
Josef made a dismissive gesture. "I find I tend to agree with an old acquaintance of mine," he said, and quoted, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing."
She responded with a not-very-convincing fake scowl, then laughed quietly at the witticism. "Wait a minute," she said. "I've heard that before." Lucky looked thoughtful for a moment, and then asked, "Are you telling me you knew Oscar Wilde?"
Josef looked away for a moment, as though deliberating with himself, then cast his gaze back at her shrewdly. "I might have known my little librarian would recognize that quote," he said, reaching out to touch her face. "There's just too much trivia in that head of yours."
"But—did you know him? Did you really know Oscar Wilde?"
Josef sighed, knowing she would not be deflected now she was on the path of an historical anecdote. He sat down in a leather easy chair, settling his large frame comfortably. "If I have to tell you all about this—" he started.
"And trust me, you do."
"—then you can at least come sit in my lap so we can both enjoy storytime."
Lucky's smile was very genuine as she complied, perching on one of his long thighs while she swung her feet up to rest her ankles across the opposite arm of the chair. Maybe she was crazy, but she always felt there was no safer place for her in the world than in the arms of this ancient vampire. "Okay," she said. "Spill."
As she shifted, her robe slid, affording Josef a generous view of her long bare legs below the hem of her short gown. Tactile creature that he was, he could not resist the temptation to drop a hand to her knee, delighting in the texture of her living skin as his fingertips moved to her thigh, a texture that to his sensitive touch seemed softer than silk, sweeter than velvet. She shivered, putting a hand to his shoulder to steady herself.
"You really knew Oscar Wilde?" she repeated.
"Well, let me ask you this—have you read The Picture of Dorian Gray?"
Lucky thought for a moment. "You mean—you mean—wow. He must not've liked you very well."
Josef smirked, but there was an edge of real bitterness to it, and a shadow in his eyes. "You may not have noticed, but that's not uncommon. In fact, it's pretty much the rule."
"There are exceptions to that, Josef." Even looking into his face, she thought, made her heart beat faster, and she hated to see him looking so sadly serious behind his smile. This time, as she shifted her hips slightly to move nearer to him, and laid her other hand lightly on his still chest, fingertips barely grazing the perfect skin at the open collar of his shirt, it was quite deliberate. She wished she were bold enough to unbutton just one more button of the dark, striped shirt and slide her hand inside to explore the strong planes of his chest, but didn't quite dare. Instead she turned back to conversation. "So how did you meet him?"
"Hmm?" Josef asked, pulling himself out of the distraction of her closeness. "Oh. Wilde. Right." He shrugged slightly. "Not that much to tell, really. Result of one of those six degrees things, and all that. I'd gotten to be friends with an actress, a woman named Ellen Terry. You know what actresses are—anything to stay young. She and I were—exploring mutually beneficial options. Didn't work out, but it was fun while it lasted. Ellen was a leading lady at Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre, and she took me to more than one social gathering at his manager's house. Turns out the manager's wife was an old girlfriend of Wilde's, believe it or not, and he regularly attended her soirées. Florence Balcombe. Cold-hearted harpy. What a vampire she would've made!" He chuckled again. "But I think her husband was well aware of that, speaking of hack writers."
Josef decided he'd dropped more than enough hints; he could see the pieces of the puzzle already clicking together in Lucky's brain. He smiled down at her, slipped his hand under her knees, and stood easily, supporting her shoulders against him as she swung her feet down to stand in his arms.
"Well," he said, "this was a scenic stretch of memory lane, doll, but I do need to get back to work." His gaze dropped to her throat, where the leap of her pulse was hard enough to shake the heart-shaped ruby that hung there. Some vampires might prefer an unmarked throat, but he rather enjoyed seeing the pale signs that reminded him of some rather memorable feedings.
She smiled at him. "As long as you're on a break, would you care for a snack?"
"That would be—most appreciated." He paused, and looked her full in the face, so that she could see his eyes bleed from brown to crystal blue, and marveled slightly that there was no change in her own sweet, trusting eyes. Once more he ran a hand down her arm, his thumb sliding over the old fang marks, drawing a smile from her. He lifted her unresisting wrist to his lips, inhaling deeply as he did so. Lucky smelled faintly of soap, and the clear bright scent of her skin brought a familiar ache to his jaw, almost an itch deep within his fangs. And as always, with freshies, he loved the sound of that little gasp they made when his teeth entered their skin. Lucky—the best word he could think of was—undulated--closer, and laid her head against his shoulder, murmuring his name softly, breathlessly, over and over.
Sooner, perhaps, than either of them wanted, he released her. After all, he thought regretfully, he was only on a break. And there would always be later.
"Josef?" Lucky asked softly, "would you like me to stay? I've thought of another book I'd like to read. And I think you'll approve of this one."
"I'd be glad of the company." He returned to his desk, but watched out of the corner of his eye as she made her selection. "We really should discuss literature more often."
Lucky scanned the bookcase quickly, looking for something she'd spotted before. Not one of the more imposing books, but a faded yellow clothbound volume. Finding it tucked in a corner, she removed it carefully from the shelf and curled into the easy chair, opening it a few pages in. She smiled as she began to read, thinking that Florence Balcombe's husband must not have liked Josef very well either.
"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!" He
made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as
though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The instant,
however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively
forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which
made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it
seemed cold as ice--more like the hand of a dead than a living man.
Again he said: --
"Welcome to my house! Come freely. Go safely: and leave something
of the happiness you bring!" The strength of the handshake was so
much akin to that which I had noticed in the driver, whose face I had
not seen, that for a moment I doubted if it were not the same person
to whom I was speaking. So to make sure, I said interrogatively:--