This is the second of ten excerpts from BOND OF FIRE.
Silence stretched between them, emphasized by the chattering fools around them and a seductive minuet dipping and gliding in the distance.
All the while, the less favored – younger brothers and sons, lower ranks, the purely ambitious, malcontents – plotted and planned and whispered while watching every passerby at this most brilliant and deadly of all Europe’s courts. The one whose queen could lock the king out of her favorite bedroom, while lewd pictures of her with a legion of lovers were bought and sold in every city. The one whose greatest royal palace glittered like a diamond and reeked like a cesspool, thanks to the open latrines in the stairwells.
Beautiful, corrupt, and deadly – like its vampiros’ reputation. Yet even here they respected certain fundamental tenets of vampiro society, such as the necessity for speaking Spanish. Charlemagne had brought to France Spanish translations of Arabic travelogues, including Spanish names for everything related to vampiros. Given that most vampiros were widely scattered and a quarrelsome lot at best, their lingua franca was the only thing that allowed any courtesy. Every young vampiro – or cachorro – therefore learned the Spanish terms, or was quickly destroyed by a testy older vampiro for bad manners.
So-called civilized Frenchmen could no more avoid the painful necessity of accepting Spanish terminology than they could hide their monarchy’s decay.
Jean-Marie had not survived this long by ignoring bitter truths.
“I will go to her later this evening, after she’s sated,” he said abruptly. “The taste should be extremely – satisfying by then.”
“Sí, her taste should completely heal you, given how rich it’s likely to become,” Rodrigo agreed.
Both men glanced across the room at her. Sara was barely visible in a card room, surrounded by a crowd of admirers, both men and women. She was usually considered lovely but quiet, with her dark hair and eyes and olive skin. Now she was glowing with all the radiance of a girl enjoying a long-promised treat, making her appear a great beauty. Her sultry looks promised pleasure and fulfillment to all those around her.
Even if she hadn’t been a vampira, her vivacity would have been more than enough to capture the attention of any prosaico – or mortal – whose carnal favors she wanted to taste. As a vampira on the hunt, she was irresistible.
“She’s chosen well for her first night here, since all of them appear very sensual. The morning should see her very replete,” Rodrigo commented. He claimed two more glasses from a servant and gave one to Jean-Marie. “But, sabe Dios, I’d rather be in Texas, breathing the open air, than here amid all these courtiers. . .”
“High in the hills north of San Antonio?” Jean-Marie queried softly, remembering where he’d ridden half-wild horses with even rowdier Indians, and Rodrigo had spent days roaming the hills and rivers. But there’d been little peace between the Spanish settlers and the Indians, until finally the governor had eliminated all but a few heavily armed settlements. After that, their small household had headed north and east, their wanderings eventually leading them to Savannah and finally to Washington’s army.
Rodrigo and Jean-Marie lifted their glasses in a silent toast to the one place they’d found on their travels that they’d both loved.
“It was worth exploring La Salle’s survivors’ fantastic tales, was it not? After all, not every story voiced in these halls can be completely false.” Rodrigo twirled the fragile crystal goblet, sending shards of light dancing over their brilliantly embroidered suits.
Jean-Marie huffed in mock dudgeon, allowing himself to be teased out of his megrims. He stretched, subtly shifting his coat’s fine silk across his shoulders and checking the position of his weapons. While his instincts hadn’t warned him of any trouble near Sara tonight, there was still work to be done. “I’d best be going. Sara’s already gathered a court and. . .”
Rodrigo’s deep voice overrode his. “I’ll make sure her suitors are acceptable.”
Jean-Marie raised an eyebrow. He’d expected Rodrigo to be hunting here, too.
“I fed earlier – and well.” Rodrigo almost purred the words, investing them with an entirely appropriate carnal significance.
Indeed? Jean-Marie considered the implications for his protector’s duties. Vampiros, such as Rodrigo and Sara, fed on the emotional energy carried in blood. Vampiros who were pleasant companions enjoyed carnal energy and had spent every year of their long lives perfecting their techniques for granting the utmost sensual pleasure to their lucky partners. With five hundred years’ experience to guide Rodrigo, his prey were uniformly fond of his company and sustained him very well.
Disgusting vampiros, on the other hand, fed on terror and death.
Even knowing Rodrigo was both free and capable, Jean-Marie had his own concerns, starting with Rodrigo’s health. “It’s my duty to guard her at all times.”
“Tonight you’re off duty and must enjoy yourself. ¿Comprendes?” Rodrigo shrugged lazily, every inch the haughty grandee, whose word alone was more than enough justification for any action.
Jean-Marie hesitated before nodding his acceptance. Rodrigo loathed watching Sara feed. He’d likely be depressed and guilty tomorrow, ridden by old memories that only she shared and might be able to discuss with him. But there was no use arguing with him in this mood. He’d use a vampiro’s gifts of mind compulsion to gain his way or, more likely, his own remarkable ability to forge clever punishments no sane man wanted to repeat. “You are too kind, mon frère.”
“I live to make my family happy.” Rodrigo swept Jean-Marie a ridiculously ornate bow, and they both laughed at the absurdity of him ever behaving like an overanxious flunky. He slapped Jean-Marie lightly on the shoulder and strolled toward Sara and the card room, shaking out the lace under his cuffs. The crowd parted before him, most of them probably not even aware they were doing so.
Jean-Marie shook his head, wishing his best friend had more to occupy his mind than sacrificing his peace for his family’s momentary comfort. He’d been far happier as Washington’s spymaster in New York City, when he’d needed to continually juggle everything from Washington’s desperate needs – and utter lack of funds – to the British perceptiveness and bloodthirstiness. He’d even managed to have Jean-Marie assigned as his courier, in order to feed discreetly from Sara. They’d done well after peace was signed, too, helping to rebuild America’s cities and mercantile empires. Only Sara’s increasingly rabid loathing of North American provincialism had made them leave for Europe.
Europe, with its bright lights and frivolous assemblies, intent only on pleasure. Europe, which expected the French court to show the way in art, music, and dance.
His intuition jostled him then, sending a frisson rippling through his spine. It was the irregular voice that had guided him through an unsettled childhood surrounded by enemies and sycophants, where he could speak freely to nobody and his only assets were what his grace and sweet speaking won from his father. It had told him when to speak or remain silent, when to move or remain still. It had always been right, even though it rarely spoke in words.
His oldest friend, other than Rodrigo, and his most trusted companion, although he could never predict when and how it would visit him.
He glanced around – and was rewarded with another nudge when he faced the ballroom. So be it.
He headed for the glittering room, enjoying a minuet’s brilliant cascade of notes. He’d been trained in dancing from earliest childhood, part and parcel of learning swordplay and riding. A few minutes of that would fulfill his promise to Rodrigo, after which he could return to their rented Paris mansion.
The ballroom was as magnificent as anywhere else in Versailles, of course. Spectacular chandeliers, gilded mirrors, lavish paintings and murals, polished floors – all combined to form a setting of immense style and majesty. Yet here, the emphasis was entirely on the dance. An alcove at one end allowed the orchestra’s music to pour over the dancers and through the halls beyond. A single row of gilded chairs circled the oval room, allowing the few spectators to gossip in comfort. The center of the room was filled with set after set of magnificently dressed men and women, all dancing the minuet.
The doorway was full of men, much more so than Jean-Marie would have expected for a dance while the king was still present.
Ah, here was a small puzzle to unravel!
He stepped forward, elbowing his way through the crowd. The throng swayed – and rebounded, refusing to move. Even more interesting.
He grew more determined and worked his way into the knot of people until he could see what held them.
As was the pattern in minuets, a single couple had taken the center of each set and was dipping and turning, gliding and swaying together, in a pageantry so precise dance masters spent a lifetime studying it.
Yet one woman held everyone’s eyes. The most graceful lady of all was centered under the finest chandelier, her jewelry making her sparkle like the sun. She was young, too, and slender, standing more than average height. She danced like a young Diana, as if the delight of the moment was more than enough reward for her, totally disregarding everyone and everything else.
Jean-Marie froze, his breath hanging in his throat. His heart forgot to beat. Nom de Dieu, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Her partner, a cavalry officer, was bowing and gliding as if he’d give his life to see the line of her ankle and foot displayed to their fullest advantage. He caught his dress sword on his coattails and stumbled.
Jean-Marie’s hands started to close into fists, ready to snatch the clumsy fool away from her. He caught himself before he lunged, cursing himself for being an idiot.
The boy – a mature soldier, to give him his due – recovered and danced on, barely missing a beat.
Jean-Marie recklessly memorized her face – the perfect oval, the straight nose, the winged brows, the – God help him! – carnal mouth, and the green eyes like the deepest glade in a forest. Her long swan’s neck, so well suited for tilting to look over her perfect shoulders at her partner. The sweet rise and fall of her breasts, inside the stiffly corseted blue dress.
What he wouldn’t give to have her smile at him, while he unlaced her. . . .
She and her partner backed into their side of the set. Another couple bowed and curtsied before gliding and dipping into their set’s center, to begin another round.
Jean-Marie blinked. All around him, men shuffled their feet, the tension sighing out of them, and some left.
Fingers gripped his elbow, and a scent reached his nose.
Vampiro? But not Rodrigo or Sara. There was only a faint hint of vampiro here and no other compañeros, of course. Given the vast unpredictability of making a compañero, few vampiros cared to try it and fewer prosaicos were stupid enough to have been caught as easily as he’d been.
He glanced toward its source.
“This way, old friend.” Donal O’Malley jerked his head at him. He was dressed expensively, but almost quietly, in dark green silk, and his few jewels were very fine. His arms-dealing business must be very profitable.
Jean-Marie threaded his way through to the Irish vampiro’s side. Together, they slipped along the wall until they found a gap among the spectators. Jean-Marie was still irresistibly drawn to watch the same woman, even though she was doing little more than occasionally curtsying to her partner or the gentleman next to her.
“Who is she?” Jean-Marie asked under his breath.
“The tall lady in blue? Madame la marquise d’Agelet. A very wealthy widow, as you can see by all the sharks circling around.”
The marquise? “She should have family to guard her,” Jean-Marie growled protectively, eyeing one greasy slob who was ogling her far too openly.
“They’re back in the Vendée, at her grandfather’s sickbed.” O’Malley joined Jean-Marie in glaring at the clumsy predator.
The slovenly fool quickly retreated, clearly alarmed.
“Why is she here alone?”
“The late marquis was an explosives expert and a friend of Lavoisier. She’s here to present his final work to the Gunpowder Administration and the Royal Academy, which aren’t invitations easily refused.” A soft Gaelic burr colored every word, despite almost two centuries away from western Ireland. “Even so, the stubborn, loyal lady managed to delay her arrival here for over a year, which is why she’s not wearing mourning.”
The four couples in each set glided forward and sank down courteously, the gentlemen bowing and the ladies curtsying, marking the dance’s end.
Jean-Marie’s mouth curled in anticipation.
Christ, but he was being foolish beyond belief even to consider feeding this attraction that was burning so fast, so hot, so bright – given all that had happened the last time he’d been tempted by a woman. But why not? After all, what the hell did he have left to lose?
“Will you introduce me?”
O’Malley’s dark eyebrows arched. “What of Señorita Perez?”
“She is busy elsewhere.” Jean-Marie shrugged, remembering all the other times she’d gone off to find her own amusements – as the Irishman knew very well.
The orchestra crashed into a long chord.
But if I could spend a few minutes with Hélène d’Agelet, I could pretend I was unattached. Maybe dance with her and simply enjoy being alive, as I had when I was young and foolish in this palace. . .
“You have my word, my intentions toward madame la marquise are entirely honorable,” he added harshly, half-wishing he could say he wanted more.
O’Malley searched his face for a long moment but nodded abruptly. “This way.”
Excerpt from Bond of Fire by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2008 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved