"Oh Mama, must you?"
Cora looked reproachfully at her eldest daughter and tried to smile to show she was making the best of a bad situation and so must they.
"Yes darling, I'm afraid I must. There's no other way now you see?"
Cora leaned forward and sniffed at her food, wondering why something that smelt and looked so repulsive was the single most appealing thing in the entire universe to her at the moment. She sighed deeply and supposed it was her lot in life now. Glancing at the food on her loved one's plate she wondered why salmon now looked so revolting and the barely cooked beef so appealing.
She cut into it gingerly, smelling the blood as it streamed across the plate and finding her body hum with joy at the thought, and slowly placed it into her mouth.
It was cold and soggy with blood and she could feel the cool, tangy juice swirling around her tongue. It was exquisite and she dived back for more, devouring the meat on her plate with gusto and, judging by her family's disgusted expressions, a very unladylike enjoyment. She didn't care for the time being, half-hoping that they might put it down to her being American. As a generic excuse her heritage had gotten her out of a great many scraps.
She finished the last of the meat and reached for some bread to mop up the blood. She tried not to think too much about what she was actually doing, she was still too hungry to care really. None of her children had touched their food and Robert was drinking a second glass of whiskey. She still didn't really care but she did hope they weren't going to starve themselves on her account for every meal from now on. Perhaps she should consider eating alone, or with the servants?
She licked the last drop of blood from her finger and sat back in her chair, quite content, and reaching for her drink – a strange, apparently beer-like concoction called 'stout' that Thomas had assured her contained plenty of iron, she supposed it was close enough – drinking deeply and sighing happily.
"Sybil, if you're finished, be a dear and go and tell Mrs Pattmore she needn't bother cooking it at all next time. Oh and see if she's found a good recipe for…what was it? That odd English breakfast food that Rosamund tried to poison me with last year…well I suppose I'll eat it next time….black pudding! That's it! Thank you Sybil."
Her youngest daughter shot out of her seat, glad to be excused and all but ran to the kitchen. Cora didn't have the heart to tell her she would be little safer down there. Edith looked green with disgust and Mary wasn't looking much better.
"Girls, if you're not going to eat you may as well leave."
Both of them shot up and were out before Cora had finished her speaking. She sighed deeply.
"Oh Robert, what are we going to do about this?"
Her husband all but choked on his drink.
"Good god! How can you be so calm about this entire affair?"
Cora shrugged delicately and sipped her drink.
"I've accepted it Robert, you're just going to have to do the same."
He slammed his drink down on the table.
"I might accept it more if I understood it better. If you'd just tell me what happ-"
Cora rolled her eyes.
"I've already told you Robert."
"Not everything. I don't know what happened to you. Or them for that matter!"
"And nor do I."
"Ah yes…you don't remember a thing…"
"Darling, I've already told you several times, I honestly don't. None of us do."
As a matter of fact, she remembered rather vividly.
Sarah O'Brien had always been stealthy but Cora had still jumped out of her skin when her lady's maid appeared in her room on a dark and stormy night three weeks ago. O'Brien had a curious look about her, she'd been ill the last few days, Cora knew that much - and goodness she was still looking very pale – and hadn't been anticipating her returning to her work quite so soon. But the look was more than that – she was observing Cora like she never had before and the Countess had the odd feeling that her maid had been watching her for longer than she was aware.
"Oh O'Brien, I wasn't expecting you back at work so soon."
Whatever strange, glassy-eyed creature had been standing in the doorway immediately vanished and was replaced by the efficient and calm maid Cora had grown used to. She breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn't realised she was holding onto. Perhaps Sarah was just shaken by all these recent unexplained deaths in the village.
"I'm perfectly well now m'lady. I've come to undress you if you're ready?"
Cora nodded and stood in front of her mirror, closing her eyes to block out the long day. Rosamund had finally left today after an extended visit and her sister-in-law and the Dowager Countess were rather exhausting on their own, but together…
She felt O'Brien's experienced hands move swiftly over her clothes, unbuttoning her dress quicker than Robert could when the mood took him to undress his wife and the soft touches on her skin as O'Brien eased her out of the dress were wonderfully relieving. It really had been a long day.
"Thank you O'Brien."
There was a slight chill in the room that hit her bare arms and neck immediately. She frowned slightly, wondering how it was possible when this was usually one of the warmest rooms in the house, after she'd told her husband early on in their marriage that stranded in the middle of Yorkshire or not, she at least wanted the luxury of being warm. And yet she felt her skin goosepimple slightly and, embarrassingly in O'Brien's presence, her nipples harden.
She jerked slightly when, quite without warning, she felt O'Brien's hands on her thighs, unlacing her stockings with deft fingers. Her eyes shot open and she chastised herself, she must have fallen half-asleep standing up and –good grief! Cora frowned at herself in the mirror and thought she must have put on some weight recently. Goodness she couldn't even SEE O'Brien on the floor behind her own figure.
Her stocking dealt with she felt the chill across her legs too and shuddered slightly. The candles weren't flickering at all so there couldn't be a draft…what on earth was going on? O'Brien's fingers had been cold against her legs, perhaps it was the other woman.
She turned around and reached for her lady's maid's hands, pulling her to her feet and grasping her hands.
"Dear O'Brien, you must still be ill, you're frozen to the touch."
"I'm fine your ladyship," O'Brien's voice shook slightly and Cora worried that she was going to faint. "Once I've assisted you I'll head straight to bed, I promise."
Cora was mollified. She turned around to allow her maid to finish as quickly as possible. She glanced in the mirror and felt her blood run cold. Surely THAT was completely impossible?
She spun around rapidly, checking O'Brien was indeed behind her. The maid looked concerned and her eyes darted madly between Cora and the mirror: Cora looked back at it once more to make sure she wasn't completely insane. O'Brien had no reflection.
Cora's mind spun out of control – perhaps her maid had never had a reflection and she was only now noticing? It was unlikely she supposed but certainly better than the alternatives. She'd heard all the stories of course, the lurid tales that she'd forbidden her daughters reading until they were at least sixteen and the macabre stories told late at night amongst people who'd had more than a little to drink. But this was impossible… her maid had not always been like this surely? It must have been the illness.
"O'Brien, you appear to have become a vampire."
She turned away from her maid, considering at the last moment that it might not have been the wisest move but her head was swimming with the improbability of the situation.
"Please don't send me away m'lady," O'Brien's voice washed over her and echoed in her mind. It was as though the other woman was whispering into her ear somehow. "I'd never harm you, you know that m'lady."
Without realising quite what she was doing Cora felt herself nodding. She DID know that to be true. O'Brien wouldn't hurt her for anything. Which was probably why she was allowing the other woman to glide behind her, it was the only possible word, she didn't hear a single step being taken and O'Brien was behind her. The other woman had a hand pressed against Cora's stomach, pulling her closer and though Cora couldn't see her in the mirror, she felt O'Brien's breath on the back of her neck and a tingling wave went through her.
"All I want is to keep you safe."
Cora nodded along with O'Brien's words, believing them utterly in her very soul but still half-aware that there was danger here, assuming she wasn't going mad. The awareness was leaving her, her mind was becoming hazy. The room was cold but she felt hotter than she had moments before, even though O'Brien's cold hands were touching her.
"You're so beautiful, hmmm, and you smell," she felt O'Brien lean towards her hair and breathe deeply. "Sublime."
O'Brien leaned towards her skin.
"I want to utterly devour you…"
O'Brien dropped a few light kisses on the back of her throat and Cora closed her eyes at the sudden thrill that shot through her at the touch of her lips. She released a breath she hadn't realised she was holding when O'Brien kissed her neck thoroughly.
There were delicious soft lips on her throat, an arm around her waist from behind – practically the only thing holding her up on her shaking legs – and rough fingers at her throat, caressing the flesh reverentially. She couldn't have stopped herself from reacting even if she'd wanted to and she felt her head fall slowly to the side, offering up her long, pale neck to the other woman's lips and tongue and – teeth! Sudden teeth in her throat, deep and hard and *god* so painful but throbbing in time with her whole body.
It was like nothing she'd ever felt before, horrible and invasive but she welcomed it like it was her last means of survival in the world. O'Brien's hand found the gap in her clothes and slid inside deftly, tracing her fingers over pale, soft flesh and pulling Cora closer to her body as she did so. The Countess felt helpless and revelled in it; the wound had ceased to hurt, not turning into a delicious throb as O'Brien sucked the wound clean, leaving Cora evermore weak and limp in her maid's arms.
Gently O'Brien lowered them both onto the bed. She was sitting on the edge and Cora found herself sat on her maid's lap, leaning back into the other woman and feeling the delicious pressure of their bodies pushed together. O'Brien's breasts were soft against her back and her maids hands were roughly pulling her chemise down her body as her tongue licked at the wound. Cora purred at the feeling and parted her legs, rubbing herself against O'Brien's clothed thigh as the woman in question latched her lips back onto the still seeping wound and sucked. Cora felt her head loll dangerously and wondered, vaguely in the back of her mind as though it were being shrouded in fog, whether she was going to die tonight. She could think of worse ways to go.
O'Brien pulled her lips away and Cora mewled with displeasure, pushing her sex down into O'Brien's lap in a vain attempt to gain release. She couldn't open her eyes entirely, only feel the weakness of her body – resistance to O'Brien had been utterly futile – and sob with the need of release from it all.
Her maid reached around her head and lifted it slightly, placing her own wrist against Cora's mouth. There was something there that roused her, she had no idea what, but something had touched her lips and she opened her mouth eagerly and sucked at the open wound on O'Brien's wrist, as the other woman reached around and rapidly rubbed her fingers against Cora's throbbing sex….
"You're deliberately keeping things from me Cora! You and that horrible woman…"
"Robert! Stop blaming O'Brien and stop over-reacting."
She finished her drink, licking her lips with pleasure at the metallic taste.
"My wife and two of my servants are vampires! Exactly what constitutes over-reacting?"
"Oh for goodness sake Robert, just because a few members of your household have recently entered the realms of the undead must you make such a fuss? It's not as though we're particularly pleased with the situation."
Robert huffed but she ignored him. He'd been tetchy about this for days and she supposed it was understandable but she really couldn't see the point in making such a fuss. The rest of the evening was undoubtedly going to go the same way: her daughters would be disgusted at the habits she was now forced to take up and Robert would continue to be angry that it had happened at all. As though she had done it on purpose, honestly!
Hours later Cora snuck out of her bedroom – Robert was too scared to stay the entire night these days – and down the servant's stairs nearest to her room, hurrying through the kitchen and heading out of the door to the yard. She breathed the air deeply and smiled at the stars before all but running towards the stables.
Inside the barn she found Thomas and O'Brien already there, in their nightwear as she was, already having smoked enough to create a haze around themselves. She hoped to god that they weren't going to set the whole place up in flames; the hay did look awfully dry and she was sure that part of the stories she'd read included fire as a means of death.
They stood up a bit straighter but neither of them looked especially shocked at her sudden arrival.
"Good evening to you both. I thought I might find you here."
She gave them a small, nervous smile; she had no idea exactly how she had known the servants would be in the stable barn of all places at this time of night, and yet she had come here as though there were a homing beacon inside her. She wondered if she'd been drawn to the place or the two people inside it.
Neither of them spoke, although there were still the odd glances thrown between the friends. From her observation it seemed that they had been in the midst of a disagreement, stopping only for the sake of propriety. Old habits she supposed.
"Please go on, whatever it was I'm sure it concerns us all now."
Thomas sighed and suddenly sat, quite gracefully on the floor amongst the hay.
"'m stoppin' 'ere tonight. Getting' sick to death of William keep lockin' 'is door and shovin' a bookcase in front of it."
O'Brien raised an eyebrow and, gathering her skirts around her with surprising elegance, sat down opposite him in what could only be described as a gloriously comfortable looking mass of hay.
"What's 'e got a bookcase for? Only thing I've ever seen 'im read is the comics in the paper."
Thomas smirked and dragged on his cigarette. He looked up at Cora expectantly, having half-forgotten her presence. He'd always like the Countess more than the rest of them upstairs and now, well now they were all in the same boat weren't they?
"So, you 'ad any further strokes of genius about our problem m'lady?"
Cora bristled at his tone but couldn't find the strength to be indignant. Instead she sat next to O'Brien in the hay, she thought the other woman wouldn't mind and Thomas, despite everything, was still a mystery to her.
O'Brien glared at him fiercely.
"Leave 'er alone. This is all your fault y'know?"
"How'd d'ya work that one out? Alright, I did you but 'ow was I to know you'd run straight upstairs afterwards and do 'er an' all?"
"Oh yes, because between doing 'er hair and undressing 'er there's no chance of me being near 'her ladyship's neck!"
Thomas rolled his eyes and wondered if he could stand this for all eternity. Probably not but he could have landed himself with considerably worse companions he supposed. Maybe he'd try and find another man though, just to even out the numbers. Definitely not William…he wondered what Branson was like with a drink in him?
Cora wasn't listening to their argument at all. She was vaguely aware that it seemed to have something to do with her but it didn't concern her too much. She was altogether more occupied with observing O'Brien and trying to fathom out why she suddenly felt such an urge to be physically close to the other woman. She supposed it must be to do with the fact that it had been O'Brien to do this to her in the first place – Cora didn't hold any grudges, it wasn't O'Brien's fault that her mistress was so tempting – and there was now an unbreakable connection between them.
Cora closed her eyes and listened to the night, everything seemed to be music now and she could smell flowers that she knew for a fact were on the other side of the grounds. When she looked at the sky the stars seemed to be bigger and brighter than ever and next to her she could feel every movement the other woman made.
Cora rested her head on Sarah's shoulder, curling her body against the other woman and clinging to her arm. She felt like a child holding desperately on to its mother and, closing her eyes once more, she breathed in O'Brien's scent, finding comfort in the familiarity.
"Are we staying here too?"
She frowned at herself. It had felt like the right thing to say but why on earth would they be staying in the barn with Thomas? And why was it we? Being close to Sarah O'Brien felt like the most natural thing in the world and though her head told her that sleeping with her here in the barn was utterly bizarre a built in instinct was telling her otherwise. She curled further into Sarah, pulling them both back against the hay.
"I'd like to stay here. If that's alright with you Thomas."
She opened her eyes and glanced over at him, noticing the look of shock he was sharing with O'Brien that neither of them was quick enough to hide from her.
"Is it too shocking? It just feels-"
"I know," O'Brien cut across her, linking their hands together. "And it is a nice night."
Thomas, for his part, felt curiously protective of the both of them. He nodded his assent. At least if they were here he would be able to keep an eye on them and make sure they went unharmed, who knew what might happen to them all if they were separate in the house? If someone tried to hurt one of these two women he might not be able to get there in time to stop it and that was a horrifying thought. He leapt to his feet and searched further in the barn until he located two blankets that looked reasonably clean. He knew Sarah wouldn't mind but the other woman was still a Countess after all.
He placed the larger of the blankets over the women, ignoring O'Brien's look of mild annoyance.
"I'm not a child y'know?"
Thomas smirked at her.
"I know. But you look so comfy, I didn't want you to disturb yourselves."
"Thank you Thomas," came Cora's muffled response.
"You're welcome m'lady." Thomas looked at O'Brien smugly and settled himself on the other side of her. He wasn't planning to get as close to her as she was to Cora but he didn't intend to be far away from them. The other side of the barn seemed miles away and here he could see outside, it was just practicality.
He lit two more cigarettes and passed one to O'Brien, continuing their conversation from earlier as though they had not been interrupted by a suddenly very clingy Cora.
"So, this plan?"
Sarah puffed out a long stream of smoke.
"Right, first off, we can't exactly go about killing folks-"
"Not even Bates?" He cut across hopefully. Cora sniggered.
"Sadly I think we're best leavin' him be."
"Honestly! What is it about Bates that you two hate so much? You can tell me: we're all family now."
It slipped out before she could think about it; inside her it felt entirely true and a lifetime of keeping her mouth shut and real thoughts to herself was rapidly being made up for. But family? It was a rather complicated word given the situation – she had a family after all, a lovely, beautiful family that she adored utterly – but oddly this strange dependence on the two servants gave her the same sense of contentment and peace she felt when with her husband and daughters. She already preferred them to Violet.
O'Brien recovered from the awkward silence first.
"He should never 'ave been here."
"He couldn't do the bloody job."
"He fell over in the line-up for the Duke."
"He still can't serve at table."
"He's a right smug bastard."
Cora laughed again. She knew she should pretend shocked at the language and defend her husband's choice of valet but she liked their candour and enjoyed feeling included in their vitriol.
"You two are terrible. There's no need to be so harsh on him."
Thomas leaned back casually against the hay.
"There's every need m'lady."
Cora sniggered again and curled against O'Brien's throat. She ran her lips over the other woman's skin, intrigued with the tastes she found there.
"Sarah, why do you taste like honey?"
The woman in question bit down on her lip. She wasn't entirely sure whether Cora was aware of what she was doing, and in front of Thomas as well, but she felt it best not to stop the other woman.
"I've no idea m'lady."
Cora dragged her lips to her collarbone and nibbled lightly on the skin.
"Hmmm, you taste much better than that damn meat earlier. My children find me revolting."
Even Thomas felt sorry for her and, completely breaking with every rule he had ever imposed on himself, he tentatively reached out a hand and gently stroked Cora's hair in what, to Sarah, looked like the most awkward attempt at comforting somebody ever.
"I'm sure they'll get used to it m'lady."
Sarah rolled her eyes and glared at him. She was trying to think of what might help herself but she was somewhat distracted by Cora's lips on her skin; she felt herself responding and wondered if Thomas would be repulsed enough by the idea of women and sex in the same sentence to leave them alone.
As his hand travelled lower, reaching down to Cora's back, she suddenly doubted it and wondered how on earth the Countess was able to inspire such tenderness in her and Thomas….family…were they really a family now?
Thomas shuffled a little bit closer.
Well she supposed they must be for that to happen.