A/N: Eris suggested to me that I should go back and write about the first time freshie Lucky was bitten after she recovered from the attack she suffered in "Within the Empty Reaches of the Night." So this piece actually belongs somewhere in the neighborhood of the events of Chapter 4-5 of "Exclusivity." Sorry if that's a bit confusing, but there it is.
The rambling, modernistic house sat high in the hills above the city, looking angular and strange, as though some giant had tossed a handful of oddly shaped fragments from the sky to dominate the crown of the hills. This was the first time Lucky had been to Josef's home, and she wasn't sure if she liked the architecture, but she had to admit the view of L.A. was unparalleled. She'd arrived in the golden light of the late afternoon, along with a dozen others, picked up by limo. And since it was well before sunset, they'd been shown to the unoccupied freshie wing, to change into bathing suits and take advantage of the pool.
"Mr. Kostan has no resident donors at present," the young man who had greeted them replied smoothly to a question from a girl Lucky had never seen before.
Later, sitting out by the pool and watching the sun set over a hazy cityscape, she wondered why she'd been invited, and even more, why she'd accepted. She hadn't fed Josef, or anyone else for that matter, since that disastrous time when Lunos attacked her in Josef's office. She supposed the invitation this evening had been offered because Josef still felt some residual responsibility for the attack, and accepted because she felt some gratitude for his kindness to her afterward.
"Well, this is a nice change," another girl said to her while they were surveying the generous spread of hors d'oeuvres. All very healthy, Lucky noted with a slight smile. She had to think Josef would always tend to the details of keeping invited freshies in good condition. It was only self-interest, after all.
"Oh?" She was thinking she'd met this freshie somewhere before. Her name was, was Dawn, maybe?
The other girl shrugged. "When Tim's brought me to these things before, they've always been in the offices in the Kostan Building. I mean, the food's always good, and the big plasma tv is nice, but it just gets so boring hanging out while the vamps play poker. This seems more like a real party, you know?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Lucky was half-panicked, wondering what was expected of her. Maybe she should just leave now. That would probably be the wisest thing, even if Josef were displeased about it. Leave quietly, and avoid any trouble.
She never knew if he was listening for her, tracking changes in her scent, but their host appeared suddenly at her side, his cool hand snaking around her waist. She jumped, relaxing when she realized who it was. His touch was all right, his touch she could stand.
"Ladies," he said, "welcome to my home. Please make yourselves comfortable." He smiled down at Lucky. "I'm especially glad to see you here. Now relax, doll. It's okay."
Before she could answer, he was gone.
So fading out into the night wasn't an option. Lucky pasted on a smile, and hoped that the others would put her shaking down to the rising chill of the evening.
As the night drew on, they moved in from the poolside terrace to a cozier room, disappearing one by one to change out of bathing suits. Lucky thought the aura of expectation was growing almost palpable. Conversation lagged, and Lucky pretended to read a book she'd tucked into her tote.
Finally, around midnight, the poker players took a break, appearing to claim their chosen companions. Lucky found she was holding her breath, but Josef offered his hand to a waif-like blonde she'd never met before. The girl positively sparkled at his attention.
She was watching them, not sure whether to be glad or upset that he hadn't come her way, when there was a light touch on her shoulder and she looked up to see a strange vamp smiling at her.
"Care to dance, darlin'?" he asked, and even though his tone, and his eyes, were friendly, Lucky froze in fear. He held out a hand, clearly expecting her to smile and rise gracefully to him, but before she could formulate a response, Josef's voice snapped out across the room.
"Pick another one, Luke. I'm saving that one for later."
Luke looked at her appraisingly, with a quick caress to her cheek. "Well," he said softly, "you must be something special, then. Another time, perhaps."
Lucky forced herself to nod, swallowing nervously.
"Gentlemen," Josef announced, "I suggest we meet for the next hand in, say, twenty minutes."
The chosen ones mostly straggled back shortly, drifting in with dreamy eyes and fresh fang marks, to drop into exhausted slumber in the couches. One was carried in by the young assistant. Dawn checked her over expertly and found a light blanket to tuck around her unconscious form.
The next two hours dragged. A few of the girls started a card game, some watched a movie. And as the time went on, one by one the unbitten slipped off to freshen makeup, neaten hair. Conversation was desultory, but no one was talking to Lucky. She could feel them looking at her, feel them wondering how it was she was preselected, when most of them were unattached freshies, who would gladly kill to attract the attention of a vamp half as powerful, or as rich, as Josef.
Attention she was entirely unsure she desired.
The last bite, the bite from Lunos, had nearly killed her. His hands, and his fangs, had violated her. Even now, she was barely able to let the memories come into her conscious mind, and she'd become expert at blocking them with other images. But she spent a lot of time waking in the night, covered with cold sweat, and leaping up to make sure once again that the ineffectual locks on her doors and windows were tight. Making sure that she had told herself enough times that there were guards, that she was not unprotected. Making sure the talisman Josef had given her was around her neck, the proof that her attacker was dead. She'd hated it, at first, that necklace, the gold-bound fang hanging against her skin, but it had come to be a comfort to her.
She had to admit, in the time following the attack, Josef had been remarkably considerate, kinder than she would've guessed he could be. He had touched her, from time to time, always making sure she felt unconfined, that she never felt trapped by him. She wondered if she were like a bird being patiently, carefully lured to the hunter's hand. At the thought, she found she was shaking, quietly, and she put the book in her lap, not even pretending to read. Sometimes, staring off into space, trying to fill her head with white noise, was all she could manage.
Caught up in her own world, she didn't hear the voice in the doorway.
"Just deal me out this hand," Mick said. "I've got to get some house red." He paused on the threshold. Walking into a room of eagerly waiting freshies was like swimming into a riptide. The pheromones these girls were throwing off were enough to pull most vamps into full-on feeding mode. Mick had scented it even in the card room—as he was sure Josef meant for all the players to do—and it had finally pulled him out of the game to come in search of the bottle he knew Josef would have set aside for him.
In the midst of all the feminine lust, however, he caught one thread of fear. He frowned. None of these girls should be afraid. And not only that, but the smell of fear seemed oddly familiar. Mick snapped his head around, following his nose to the source of the aroma.
"What are you doing here tonight, Lucky?" he asked, focusing his intense gaze at the distracted freshie. "This isn't your usual crowd."
Lucky shook her head as if to clear it, and peered up at Mick. "Oh, hey," she said, giving him a sweet smile. Mick was always a gentleman.
"Lucky," Mick repeated, "what are you doing here?"
Her smile faltered. "Jo-Josef invited me."
"And you want to be here?" Mick couldn't help but notice that she didn't answer at once. "I can get you a cab, if you'd rather go," he offered. The girl just seemed off, and out of place tonight. He felt a momentary flash of anger with Josef for putting her in this situation. Wouldn't it be kinder just to let her slip quietly away from the whole scene? Mick reached out, his long fingers curled back loosely, intending to run his knuckles and the pad of his thumb in a soft stroke down the skin of her upper arm, then paused, hesitating, concerned lest his cool touch bring the memory of Lunos back to her again.
Lucky noted his gesture, and once more burned with shame that Mick apparently thought it beneath him to touch her. At least Josef still treated her as though she was desirable. She felt a surge of complex emotions flood through her: gratitude, anger, embarrassment,
fear, defiance. "Josef wants me here, and I want to stay," she said.
Mick simply looked at her for a few moments, biting the inside of the left corner of his mouth thoughtfully. Then he nodded and turned away, bypassing with a slight sense of distaste the platters of fruit and veggies on the wet bar to avail himself of the bottle of blood stashed discreetly in a hidden refrigerator behind the bar. He poured a full glass, knocking back half of it at once. He'd have to top it with Scotch in the other room. Trust Josef not to give the freshies a chance to get liquored up, he thought. Still, this situation with poor little Lucky…
Josef barely spared a glance at the thunderous countenance of his best friend when the vampire stalked back into the card room, glass of blood in hand, headed for the booze. He was calculating the odds of filling a jack-high straight, but he did take his mind off the game long enough to growl softly at Mick, "You know, buddy, you might want to consider that after four centuries, I do know what I'm doing."
"I might also want to consider that you're a selfish bastard, Joz'ef."
The older vampire raised his eyebrows in disapproval, then glanced to his right. "How many cards, Dan? Or are you going to sit there and stare at them until sunup?"
"I'm thinking, I'm thinking," Dan responded.
"In that case, we might as well get comfortable," Josef rejoined.
"Come on, man, make up your mind," Luke urged. He'd been catching the enticing smell from the next room for some time now, and he was getting very anxious to slip his fangs into something warm.
Josef ended up raking in the pot, again, and decided to take pity on the boys. Besides, he had business of his own to attend to. "Are we agreed it's time for a break?" he asked, pushing back his chair.
"I could do with a bite," Tim said, and the others nodded.
Josef favored them with one of his most unguarded, predatory smiles. "I may be somewhat delayed, so you boys don't need to wait on me."
Mick shot him a dark look, which Josef ignored amidst the hoots from the other three.
"Holding out on the good stuff from us, Josef?" Luke snickered.
"I'm just sayin'—some things shouldn't be rushed."
"That--I can agree with," Mick said.
Lucky was staring at the floor, trying not to attract any attention, from anyone. Maybe if she stared hard enough, sat still enough, she could become invisible. Maybe Josef would forget she was here. Then again, maybe he'd become a vegetarian, and neglected to tell her. Of course, staring at the floor, the first thing she became aware of were the tips of his Italian loafers standing right in front of her. Then a cool finger lifted her chin, and she was looking into his face. She thought he seemed mildly amused.
"You okay, doll?" he asked.
She managed to nod against the gentle pressure of his hand, her gray eyes fixed on his face.
"You're lying," he said, his lips twitching slightly. "And you're not very good at it." He released her chin, turning his hand palm up to offer it to her. "I think it's time for us to talk."
Josef noted with approval that there was only the slightest hesitation before she laid her hand in his, and only the faintest tremor he could detect as she rose.
"Let's step into my study, babe. It's quieter there."
Lucky felt as though all that was holding her up as they moved through the room was the light touch of his hand at the small of her back. It was certainly all that her mind could comprehend, until the study door clicked shut behind them.
The room was slightly more personal than the other parts of the house she'd seen. The desk was littered with papers, and the multiple bookcases were full, with a nearby dark brown leather easy chair set beneath a convenient reading lamp. A wall of windows looked out on the same view as the terrace, but the glass between the room and the drop to the city made it seem detached, made it somehow much more separate from the world of ordinary life. The shelves held a few objets d'art, but even in her distracted state, it did occur to Lucky that probably one of the lessons Josef had learned in his long life was not to get too burdened with possessions. Still, the space seemed more alive and inhabited than the rest of the house.
"Welcome to the inner sanctum, Lucky," Josef said.
She turned and smiled at him. "You have a lovely home, Josef…but I think I like this room best, so far."
"I thought you might." They stood silently for awhile, just looking at each other. The vampire kept a hand on the young woman's back, constantly moving but never confining. He could feel her slowly begin to relax. "Lucky…"
"You know that I want to taste your blood again, don't you?"
She couldn't help smiling and nodding. "I'd gathered that."
"What do you think about it?"
Lucky shook her head. "You're a dangerous man, no question. But it's more of the bite." She looked away, focusing out into the blackness beyond the glass. "It hurt, Josef. It hurt so much."
Josef moved away from her, sat down in the easy chair. With the lamp off, it was a shadowed corner in the dimly lit room. "If you can't do it, Lucky, I understand. But in that case, you need to walk away. From the whole thing. You're either a willing freshie, or you're not."
Lucky looked down at her hands, twisting them together. "I'm—I'm willing. I owe you so much, Josef."
It never ceased to surprise her, how fast the vampires could move. One second Josef was seated, seemingly relaxed, across the room in his chair, the next he was standing right behind her, bending to whisper into his ear with a voice like crushed velvet. "Don't misunderstand me, Lucky. When I said I wanted your blood, it was because I remember how sweet it was—before. And I know how sweet it will be again. I don't want some kind of bullshit martyred gratitude."
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to cry. "What I don't want is pity. Yours or anyone else's."
"What are you talking about?"
Breaking away, she walked to the window and put her hands flat against it, leaning her forehead against the glass. "You know. Get the poor damaged freshie back on track. I don't think it could ever be the same as it was." She sighed. "There are so many others for you. Why me? Why now?"
This time, when he followed, he didn't touch her, only put his back to the glass next to her. He listened to her ragged breathing for a few beats, smelled the acrid salt of tears. "I see." Josef folded his arms across his chest. "And do you think I do pity? Because I can tell you that's not the case." From within him, he could feel the hunger rising. Not a gentle ache in his fangs, but a harsh, insistent urge to drink deeply. It affected his vision, tensed his muscles, changed the tone of his voice to a lower, thicker. He made the effort to hold himself back, to savor the anticipation now that the goal was in sight. "I've learned a few things, sweetheart, over the centuries. One of them is this—when you ask why I bother with you—it's because I've learned to follow my instincts where I want." He paused, letting the silence build. "I do want you. I want the taste of you in my mouth again. There's a sweetness gained in overcoming pain, Lucky. And pity has nothing to do with it."
He heard her gasp and hold her breath. He heard a surge in her heartbeat, and scented a subtle difference in her aroma. He knew then that she would give herself to him, give her blood to him, and it would be all the more delicious for the struggle to overcome her fears. He remembered the days when he'd hunted more brutally, more viscerally, but now, he found the intellectual chase, the emotional hunt, as satisfying in its own way as the physical one had once been.
Wordlessly, she pushed back from the glass, and came into his arms with a faint sigh, her hands pale against his dark shirt. She looked in his face, just long enough for him to see the tenuous trust in her eyes, the beginnings of desire, then tilted her head to the side, offering her throat.
Josef bent his head to the skin of her neck, moving carefully, knowing the game was not won yet. As he inhaled her scent, and ran his tongue out, tasting the silken texture of her pulse point, she heard him murmur just one word, "Sweetness," and she pulled her lower lip between her teeth, knowing what was coming. But when he pulled back slightly to position his fangs for the bite, her nerve broke.
She shuddered and pushed at his chest. "I'm sorry, no, please, please, I'm sorry, I can't." She knew better than to struggle, knew that it would only trigger the vampire's prey drive, but she couldn't stop the violent shaking that had overcome her. She was well aware at this point that she couldn't break free unless he allowed it, that she could not stop his fangs from entering her flesh.
Josef was shaken, himself, but mastered his instinctive reaction and opened his arms. Back to square one, he thought, as Lucky covered her face with her hands.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she kept repeating.
Josef looked at her speculatively, wiping a hand across his mouth. He wasn't ready to give up yet. The taste of her skin still filled his mouth, and he knew he had to have her blood. He wanted it. He dropped his arms to his sides. "It's okay, sweetheart, it's okay," he said. He turned to stare out the window, thinking. After a time, moving deliberately, he crossed the room and sat once again in his reading chair. "Lucky, come here, please."
She could not resist him. She looked in his face, uncharacteristically serious, and felt her fear, her wild uneasiness, slipping away.
Josef tapped the ends of his fingers on one long thigh. "Will you sit?" He opened his legs a bit as she came to stand between them, and offered a hand to steady her as she perched stiffly. Drawing on all his experience, he began again slowly, to soothe and lull her, stroking her, petting her, speaking softly, until at length, relaxed against his shoulder, she offered him her wrist, a bit awkwardly.
"Please," she said.
His hand was so light on hers as he took her wrist that she barely felt it, and with her face hidden against his neck, she never saw his enigmatic smile.
Josef didn't remember, from his long ago mortal life, the taste of the fruits he had once known. He sometimes thought he caught a hint of their banished sweetness in the blood of one girl or another, but he knew that was probably fantasy on his part. Blood was complex, rich, completely satisfying to him, and really he desired nothing else. It had been a very long time ago he'd watched one of his rare human friends carefully cut around the blemished portion of an apple, and he'd asked the man why he didn't simply discard it in favor of a more perfect specimen. Josef wasn't sure he could remember exactly anything else the man had ever said in the twenty years of their association, but his words that afternoon, delivered with a lazy, knowing smile, had stuck in the vampire's head forever. "Haven't you learned by now, Josef? Damaged fruit is sometimes sweetest."
He stood for several minutes looking down at the unconscious freshie he'd arranged carefully in his easy chair. He reached down to take her wrist in his hand, gazing intently at the marks he'd left in her skin, noting the mingling of their scents. She stirred a little, her faint transitioning easily into natural sleep, and it was clear that his touch was not distressing to her. That pleased him more than he would have thought. He laid her hand back gently in her lap, and returned to the poker game.