All Twilight characters are the property of Stephenie Meyer.
Thank you for your comments, readers, old and new! I do apologize for the wait on this chapter, but I think you're really going to enjoy it. I certainly did. Also, the link to KCerena's very fine review of this story is up on my profile. Thank you again!
I maintained a constant vigil by my windowsill in the following days. To go outside had been absolutely forbidden, but Laurent did not deny me the torture of gazing out at the horizon, my heart aching to detect a familiar figure turn the bend in the road. The silhouettes of the trees bent and waved against the fading sunset, tricking my vision into believing it saw something moving up the road, and I stood to get a better look.
"Are you so anxious for your papá's return?" Laurent asked me as he escorted Louisa into the room with my dinner. She was a haggard sight to behold. The poor woman's eyes were red and swollen from crying, and the bit of her skin that remained exposed above her collar and wristbands was bruised and bandaged. They had been feeding from her, using a knife to bleed her in order to avoid losing control and killing her – a precaution that Laurent had insisted on after Randall's accident with the blacksmith's son and the baker's wife. I think if I were Louisa I might rather have died, but Laurent assured me that his orders were to keep everyone alive until his master returned.
I hesitated before answering his question. "Of course I am," I said finally, turning back to look out the window again. Of course I was, because James would be with him. It was a foolish desire. The situation was hopeless, and I knew it. Even if James and my father's men returned, what match were they against half a dozen monsters?
"I only ask because as I am told, his particular affection for you is one-sided."
"Who told you that?" I whirled around to look at him and caught the sight of Louisa ducking her head and blushing. She quickly curtsied and excused herself before I had the chance to accuse her of anything. Somehow knowing that others were aware of my affliction rendered the cut that much deeper. I felt a lump rise in my throat and forced it down quickly.
Laurent smiled his dazzling smile as the woman departed and offered me a shrug. "There are no secrets from vampires, mademoiselle. You will see in time."
"I think I've seen rather more of vampires than I care to, thank you."
Laurent strode forward and forced my face up to look at him with one finger. "You know that I like you, Victoria."
His glowing red eyes locked onto mine and I was powerless to turn away, even though my entire body was screaming for me to do so. "I know," I said quietly.
"And you know that the only reason no one has touched you yet is that I am protecting you, do you not?"
I swallowed hard, distressed by his use of the word 'yet'. "I know that, yes," I answered.
"And the only reason that I have not touched you myself, chère…" he purred, skimming the back of his hand down my cheek, "…is because I am under orders not to."
"Under Delgado's orders," I supplied. "Tell me, why does he need me at all? If he wants my father's ranch – why not just take it from him before he gets back? You could let my mother and me go and we won't be such an inconvenience to you," I said, unable to keep a tone of disgust from my voice.
"It is not so easy. If we simply stole and killed for what we wanted, we'd possess very little and we'd constantly be fighting to keep it. If you want to succeed, you have to know when to play by the rules, yes? Delgado wants the deed to your father's ranch, which requires his signature. Now, we could compel him to do so simply by the power of our imaginations, but such a signature would not match his usual style, you see? No. So, Delgado has proposed a simple trade: you for your father's signature."
My voice shook a little as I spoke, "Why not trade my mother instead? She's worth more to him."
"Ah, I think you underestimate him, chère. It's you that he desires more than anything else in the world. But we will keep your mother, too."
I shuddered at his words, and I knew with a dreaded certainty that he was telling the truth. I felt sick and scared and angry. To be punished because I was loved was the most disheartening sensation imaginable.
The next morning, I tried again to escape. A vain effort, but necessary for what shreds of dignity I yet maintained. The vampires usually spent the morning in a state of rest – seated upright with eyes wide open and glazed over, staring off into the ether as their bodies digested (in whatever manner that it was) the blood they'd consumed the night before. Once the sun began to rise, I crept out of the window and made the trembling climb down the side of the house, heart pounding and breath withheld. Of course, I never stood a chance. At the foot of the trellis, Randall was waiting for me with a murderous grin.
"Good morning," he said, his red eyes dancing like flames with his delight.
"Good morning," I said in defeat, and he dragged me back into the house by my hair, my screams reverberating across the entire ranch.
Laurent was standing in the foyer, flanked on either side by Charles and Makenna, and his expression was grave. Though he'd always maintained a politely indifferent exterior, I'd known it was only a matter of time before Laurent lost his patience with me.
"Put her in the cellar," he declared. "And don't bite her," he added as an after thought.
Randall wasted no time in complying, and with a single careless toss he sent me flying down the steps of the cellar, jarring skin and bone and limb until I landed in an injured heap at the bottom, parts splayed out like a broken doll. To be honest, I preferred being down there to being locked in my room. When I was locked in my room the window had taunted me mercilessly with ideas of escape or James' return. Here, I had not the burden of such hope.
I could have easily borne it if that were to be the extent of my punishment, but the vampires had more in store for my suffering. Since they could not bite me, they bit my stepmother instead, repeatedly poisoning her with their crippling venom and sucking it out again, until she had not the strength to even whisper in protest. It fair drove me mad to have to listen to her, knowing that it was my fault she was being punished and that I could do nothing to stop it. Finally, they carried her unconscious body down the cellar steps and dropped her next to me. She slept for two days and woke up sobbing. I shared what little food they gave me with her and did my best to comfort her, but her guilt at not believing me tormented her further. "I'm so sorry," she had sobbed as she rushed into my arms, spindly and weak from hunger as they were. "I should have listened to you."
Now I folded my legs against my chest and ducked my head under my arms, trying to protect myself from the sounds of her wails. I barely noticed the cellar door opening, and was surprised to see the forms of Makenna and Mary standing before us when I looked up.
"You're to wash yourselves and put these on," Makenna snapped, throwing an armful of garments at us. Behind her, Mary emptied two buckets of water into a large basin and went up the stairs to fetch more. My stepmother shrank back and began whimpering at the sight of them.
"What for?" I asked weakly.
"You have company," she said wryly, turning to sashay back up the stairs.
We washed as thoroughly as we could in the cold water that Mary brought, having only half a bar of soap and the dim glow of a candle to aid us. We turned next to the clothes, which we discovered were not ours. They were formal ball gowns in rich, heavy fabrics – the likes of which we hadn't seen since we'd left Boston. There were also a slew of corsets, crinolines and underskirts that I put on with great reluctance, knowing the narrow waist and full skirts of the dress would never fit without all the supportive underwear. When we were finished, Makenna and Mary returned to examine us and arrange our hair, lovingly brushing the damp strands as if we were two human dolls they had dressed up for their own amusement. I wasn't entirely convinced that they hadn't until they commanded us to follow them up the stairs.
I squinted as the bright light of the kitchen overtook us, and I looked around for the other vampires. Where were they taking us?
The two vampire women led us to the parlor, where we were shocked to see my father sitting on one settee, his hands and legs bound with ropes.
"Donald!" my stepmother cried his name with relief and I gasped at the sight of him. We both moved towards him, but were stopped by the women's arms around our waists. My stomach flip-flopped at the conflicting emotions of seeing him again – my father and my tormentor.
"Victoria! Mandy!" he said, his cloudy eyes lighting up at the sight of us. "Are you two alright?"
"As you can see, they are perfectly well. Please join us, ladies," Laurent said, stepping into view and gesturing for us to enter the parlor.
"You let them the fuck go!" my father shouted, his face blotching a deep red and his chin wobbling with the violence of his speech. "This ain't got nothin' to do with them! It's me you want!" He kicked at his bindings and tried to stand, but fell back hard onto the settee under an unexpected blow from Laurent, who had seemingly appeared from nowhere.
"Be quiet, monsieur, or I shall rip your tongue right out of your head," Laurent snarled, one hand raised threateningly, the fingers gnarled into a claw.
"Oh good, everyone's here," a new voice said, and we all turned to see who the newcomer was.
He was of a slighter build than Laurent, but his skin was of the same silky olive hue and his features, though harder, were handsome. He was dressed in jeans and leather armitas under a fringed suede riding coat and a wide-brimmed leather hat. He looked at me with his dark, red eyes and smiled.
"Delgado," I hissed in accusation.
My father balked. "You're Delgado?"
The stranger seemed amused to hear himself addressed thusly, but he inclined his head slightly in a bow. "Some call me that. And you must be the lovely Victoria? I've heard so much about you."
"Victoria?" a voice behind him asked, and the world fell out beneath me when the second man pushed past the first and walked in through the door.
"Wilder," my father spat, returning the look James gave him with equal venom and hatred. "I knew you must have had something to do with this."
"James!" I cried in a half-sob of relief, struggling against Makenna's grip. She hissed and held me in place, but she couldn't stop my heart from soaring with joy at the sight of him. He'd come back for me!
James took one look at me and stiffened with anger. He turned to Delgado and barked in an angry whisper, "What the hell is this? You said you'd keep her out of this!"
I stopped struggling, stunned. What did James have to do with this? With the vampires, with kidnapping my father…? I was overcome with a striking sense of unease.
"And so she shall," Delgado replied silkily, petting James' arm in a reassuring gesture that I found to be much too familiar for my comfort. "Laurent, you may take this dear little girl away. She doesn't need to see this."
"See what?" I asked, my voice shrill with anger. "What are you going to do to my family?"
"This way, chère," Laurent said, cooly reaching to take me from Makenna's grasp.
"Don't you dare touch me," I growled out at him, possessed by some kind of fire alien to myself. I turned to James and beseeched him, "James! Don't let him take me!" My heart sank when James turned away, unwilling to meet my eyes. Tears that had remained unshed until now spilled hot and angry down my cheeks. A knot formed in my throat as I choked out one last desperate plea: "James?"
James, still looking down, addressed the newcomer, "You promised, Benito."
The man called Benito or Delgado quirked up an eyebrow at James' brashness, but finally acquiesced with a nod. "Then you take care of her, James."
The tension in James' face broke with relief and he started forward towards me, only to be caught by the arm. "But you'd best remember your end of the bargain," Benito added in an undertone.
James nodded absently, his gaze focused on me. He broke free from the vampire's grasp finally and reached me, my eager fingers grasping for his. "Come with me, Vicky," he whispered soothingly to me, taking my arm and leading me from the room.
I looked over my shoulder uncertainly to where my parents sat as James led me outside. My stepmother, mercifully, had elected to faint, but my father stared long and hard back at me, his eyes reflecting a mixture of concern and… betrayal. Absurdly, I was offended. As if I had anything to do with this! James tightened his hold on my arm to indicate that we should keep moving, and I forced myself to look away from my parents. I wondered if it would be the last time I'd ever see them.
As the door closed behind us I heard Benito begin to say, "Now, Mr. Childress. I believe we have some business to discuss..."
"You're working for him?" I asked incredulously once the pair of us was away from the house. "For Delgado?" My teeth immediately began chattering as we stepped into the December chill, the night's frost on the dead grass crunching lightly underfoot.
"Look, I didn't know he was Delgado, alright? I just figured that part out when you mentioned it." He sounded rather annoyed to be the last to know.
"But you knew he was a vampire that wanted to hurt my father!" I bit out through clenched teeth, trying to keep my voice low enough to avoid attracting the vampires' attention but loud enough to get my anger across.
He didn't answer me, just clenched his jaw and led me resolutely past the bunkhouse, where I could hear shouts and commotion – undoubtedly the sounds of Randall and Charles subduing the rest of my father's men. James closed his eyes and shook his head, quickening his pace past the low building, making a path towards the new barn. He pushed on the heavy door and it gave way, unleashing the strong scent of fresh paint and hay from within.
"Why are you taking me here?" I asked quietly, more than a little unnerved by the swell of conflicting emotions spilling over me. On the one hand I was overjoyed to see him, but on the other hand – I wasn't sure that this was the same James that left me.
James turned to me, his tone exasperated, "Would you rather I left you in there with them?"
I was stunned into silence by the harshness of his tone. "No…" I replied in a small voice.
Seeing my reaction he groaned and dragged his hands down his face in frustration. "Damnit, Vicky, just get inside so you don't freeze to death. Please. No one's going to hurt you."
What other choice did I have but to believe him? If the situation weren't already as desperate as it was, there was also the consideration that I was helplessly in love with this man. I would have followed him into that barn even if it were in flames.
"OK," I agreed, slipping in through the crack in the door and turning to watch him close it behind us. James reached for the lantern hanging to the side of the door and pulled a pack of matches from his pocket. He set to work on lighting one, but by the shaking of his hands I suspected that wouldn't be possible.
"Here, let me," I said softly, taking his hands into mine. His hands were cold as ice and I nearly flinched away, but I forced myself to keep hold of them. He stood back in awe as I took the match from his fingers and calmly struck a flame. I lit the lantern, and in the sudden flare of the new flame his face looked frightened. I hung the lantern on the hook and placed my hands with concern on his pallid cheeks. "James," I began, my face tightening with worry, "What happened while you were gone?"
"I could ask the same of you," he whispered, raising a hand to my bruised cheek.
I leaned into his touch and sighed. "It doesn't matter what happened to me. You're here with me now. We'll be OK." I smiled up at him and he returned my smile weakly. "Won't we be?" I added uncertainly.
He looked down at me then and met my hopeful gaze, his pale blue eyes shimmering with an unfamiliar sheen. "Vicky, I… I don't…" He looked as if he were struggling to say something, but didn't quite know the words. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. "I love you, Vicky," he choked out finally, his voice as unsteady as his hands.
My heart simultaneously leaped and sank. While his words overjoyed me, I was troubled by his discomposure. I took his face between my palms, an unconscious grin spreading across my own face even as tears watered in my eyes. "You do?" I asked, looking deeply into his eyes for the truth, but finding only a profound sadness. "I love you, too!" I said, relieved to finally be able to tell him.
He let out a noisy breath and crushed me against his chest, his breathing labored, his heart pounding against mine. There was something he wasn't telling me and it was terrifying me. "James, what's wrong?" I asked, curling my hands into his shirt, clinging to him for dear life.
"Shhh, it's nothing. It'll be OK," he said, but it sounded as if even he didn't believe himself. Instead of explaining, he pulled back slightly from our embrace and tipped my chin up to his in a kiss. I met his mouth with a passion pent up over weeks of longing and years of neglect. A hot coil of warmth flared up and smoldered in my stomach as he deepened the kiss, parting my pliant lips with his tongue, laying claim to what I offered so willingly. How I'd missed this! I drank in the whole of him: the faint taste of tobacco on the tip of my tongue, the rough brush of wool against my breasts, the taut sinew of strength encircling my waist. In return he kissed me with the reckless abandon of a dying man. He was everything I'd never dreamed of wanting and my need for him was so strong it scared me.
Moved by some incautious emotion, I raised my hands to the buttons at the back of my neck, wishing anxiously to be out of this ridiculous gown and into James' arms. He understood my intent almost immediately and slid his hands down the front of the dress, tugging the fabric down as I unfastened the buttons and helping it slip down to the floor in a pile with the crinoline. He hurriedly unbuttoned his coat and tossed it aside before rushing back to me, the force of his enthusiasm knocking me back against the door of the barn. My breath quickened with exhilaration as my back hit the freshly painted wood, and I looked up at him with wide eyes as he stalked towards me, his eyes burning a trail up and down my body. He lifted his hands to the cinched waist of the frilly corset and skimmed his fingertips at an agonizingly unhurried pace up to where the tops of my breasts spilled over the strained fabric.
"You don't normally wear one of these," he observed, dipping his thumb beneath the fabric to brush one of my nipples.
I gasped before I answered him, my whole body suddenly coming alive from his simple touch. "They made me," I explained.
He looked up at me sharply. "Did they touch you?"
"No." I shook my head slightly, afraid that too much movement would break the spell of the moment.
"Thank God," he murmured. He lowered his mouth to mine again and I sighed with relief, molding my body to his, anxious to touch every part of him at once. I touched my hands to his chest and let them wander down the hard plane of his muscles to the buckle of his belt, where I let them linger for a halting moment before braving ever downward to the front of his trousers. I let out a tiny cry of surprise as my hand found the appreciable bulge intended for me, and I thought I felt him smile against my lips. "I've missed you a lot," he said, giving my bottom lip a teasing nip. He arched into my hand and gave a small groan as I caressed him experimentally.
"So have I," I whispered, closing my eyes and letting my head fall back against the door. He trailed his mouth along the line of my throat and my heart raced faster in response. I was unable to tell whether it was the tightness of the corset or his mere proximity that was rendering me lightheaded. I felt heat and desire melting within me, pooling in my core. "Oh James, so have I," I said, my breath coming in shallow gasps.
I tried to work his buckle open but he stopped me, scooping my legs up under each arm and pressing me hard against the door with his body. I stifled a moan as he ground his hips against me, his arousal brushing against my bare, heated flesh where the seam of my drawers gaped open. The teasing motion was driving me wild and my mouth begged of its own accord, "Will you touch me?" I was mortified to ask, but my body was aching for him.
I felt his answering chuckle rumble in my own throat, where his mouth was decidedly fixed. "Just tell me how," he replied, squeezing the backs of my thighs where he held me up.
"How you did before… in my bed." I felt the blush rising slowly up my breasts and blossoming over my face, but strangely, it wasn't embarrassment I was feeling – it was excitement.
He gave my lips a quick kiss and picked me up again, carrying me over to where his coat lay draped over a stack of loose hay and laying me gently down on top of it. I nestled back into straw, breathing in the scent of the grass and the sun and him. He knelt between my legs, taking the time to admire me as he unbuttoned and removed his shirt. I reached up to his bare shoulders and pulled him down to me, desperate for contact. He kissed along my collarbone as his hand traveled up the inside of my thigh, and my breath caught in my throat as it made its way into the gap in my drawers. Every muscle in my body tensed and I groaned aloud as his thumb swept a leisurely arc over my most sensitive spot. "Like that?" he asked wickedly, his other hand engaged in trying to free my breasts from my corset and chemise.
"Yes," I whined and he stroked me faster, his thumb settling into a bewitching rhythm that soon had me gasping and wriggling beneath him. He managed to pull down my undergarments enough to expose one nipple, which he gathered between his lips to suck as his hand played me like an instrument, the strings of which were strung taut to near the point of bursting.
"Yes, more," I begged him, and he complied. My head fell to the side and I buried my nose in his coat, the scent of wool and pine and tobacco cloyingly sweet and thick around me. My chest and lungs ached as they strained hard against the stays of the corset with each deep, hungry breath, and then I was flying above that wild field, soaring higher and higher towards the blinding heat of the sun… All of a sudden I was crashing down to earth as a wave of ecstasy broke over me, my every fiber pulsing with pleasure as it washed down over my body. James withdrew his hand to unfasten his pants as I lay there tingling, one hand over my chest to stay my racing heart. I cried out again when James plunged into me, but I was in anything but pain. He drove into me harder and faster than he had before, his need for me outweighing any thought of gentleness. I took him in greedily, my fingers digging into his back, marveling at the way his muscles tightened and twisted with his effort. I wrapped my arms and legs around his body, urging him towards his own release. All at once he uttered a throaty sound and sought my mouth for a kiss, his body shuddering to a stop above me as he met his own blissful end. He is mine, I thought, as surely as I am his.
"I love you," he repeated almost wondrously.
"I know," I reassured him, feathering my fingers down his bare arms, trying to memorize his every angle. We lay like that some moments longer, simply basking in the other's presence.
After a moment he spoke again. "You have to leave," he said with regret, stroking back a loose strand of my hair.
"No," I said, resolute. "I'm staying with you."
"You can't," he said, pulling away from me and reaching for his shirt. "Vicky… you'll be killed."
I sat up with a start. "Killed?" I repeated, my voice tight with panic. "What do you mean? Laurent promised that I'd be kept safe as long as my father signed the deed away to Delgado! That was the trade!"
"Darling, there is no trade," he groaned, hanging his head. "Once your father signs the deed, there are no more guarantees for your safety. You have to get away from here as soon as possible. As far away as you can."
"But – what about my parents? What about you?" I reached for him desperately, my head dizzy with fear. Oh God, what about him!
He found my dress and brought it to me, helped me pull it over my unwilling head. "Here, take this." He pulled a wad of paper money and a folded piece of paper from his pocket and thrust it into my hand. "And take my horse. If you need help, go to this address – but don't stay there longer than a week, do you hear?"
He helped me to my feet and I glanced at the address. "Washington? But that's so far away, James! Why don't you come with me?" I felt tears burning at the backs of my eyes again.
He finally looked at me, his mouth set in a grim line and his eyes weighted down with an unfathomable burden. "I can't."
"James, what have you gotten yourself into?" I asked, my stomach bottoming out with dread.
He looked away, unable to meet my eyes. He sighed heavily then, and replied in a thick voice, "I did what I had to in order to keep you safe, Vicky. No one will ever hurt you again."
"Don't leave me again," I said, tears now openly streaming down my face. "That will hurt me."
"Goodbye," he whispered, and walked out of the door.
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