Provence, July 1787
“This way, I believe,” St. Just’s fine tenor announced their next turn.
Hélène obediently nodded, more conscious of his leg brushing hers through her silk skirts than any logic involved in deciphering the labyrinth. Truth be told, she cared very little whether or not they found the center or not, so long as she was with him.
Hundreds of miles away, Paris was stiflingly hot, broiling in an inferno of dust, disease, and starvation. There had been no rain since February, only the brutal sun hammering everyone and everything. Little food could be grown, and only the wealthiest could buy what tidbits could be found. The desperate poor took to the streets in riots to demand salvation from their monarch, while the rich and powerful argued over who wouldn’t have to pay to save France. At night, it seemed the city’s stones radiated heat back to the uncaring stars, together with the dying screams of those unwary enough to risk their lives by going out.
But here, all was quiet, filled with hot sunlight, lavender, and anticipation. After five months amid stone walls and angry crowds where St. Just was the only one who spoke sense to her, she’d followed him here to compel action between them.
After months of seeing each other almost every day, of dancing and riding together, of shared books and idle chatter, of laughing together and sometimes finishing each other’s sentences.
Of sitting side by side at long musicales or salons, of their fingers entwined between them, hidden by her skirts, before they’d clapped for the performer.
Of tendrils of heat flushing over her skin when he read poetry in a salon, his voice deepening and slowing over phrases of a man yearning for the woman he could not have.
Of his eyes searching for her the minute he entered a room and joy leaping into his gaze before he quickly reined it in.
Of their hands and arms brushing each other in a dance, the fine silks and muslin whispering past when they moved slower and closer than a dance master would recommend.
But never touching each other above the elbow.
She needed to resolve looks, and voices that fell away during phrases into something, something that matched the leap of her heart whenever he watched her, or she dreamed of him at night.
She’d accepted an invitation to this chateau for a week, well aware that neither her parents nor her confessor would approve of the deeds done there. A discreet purchase of a filthy painting from her host’s collection had gotten her into an isolated suite, with a very private entrance. She could spend as much time as she chose with any man present, and no other guest need know.
Rodrigo Perez, Mademoiselle Perez, and St. Just had arrived the day after she did. Mademoiselle Perez had already established her claim on several of the party’s members, which suited Hélène very well. Surely they’d keep her far away from St. Just.
The labyrinth Hélène strolled through with him was made of boxwood, clipped taller than even Monsieur Perez. The scent of lavender, hot and rich as her unfulfilled hunger for the man beside her, rolled into her nostrils from the hillsides above. The most beautiful man in the world, in mind and body – she wished she understood why he wouldn’t make advances to her, even though she’d felt his hand linger on hers a little too long during a dance, been scorched by his gaze when he saw her in a new dress. . .
She’d even considered him as a husband.
It didn’t matter whether he had any money or not, since she had more than enough for two. Bernard’s family had always been comfortably established, but he’d made a fortune with his explosives inventions after he retired from the artillery. He’d left his nephew a substantial sum to protect the marquisate, and he’d also been extremely generous to her. She could marry anyone she wanted to, especially since her birth – to be brutally honest, as well as snobbish – was haughty enough to allow her a great deal of eccentricity anyway.
Including bestowing her favors on a man whose social position was undefined. He carried himself like a prince, yet he was clearly the junior member of a very secretive household.
She truly didn’t understand why he traveled with Monsieur Perez and Mademoiselle Perez. Monsieur Perez was a tall, strong man, carrying such a formidable aura that she’d seen members of the king’s Swiss Guard snap to attention upon his approach. Yet he looked only a few years older than St. Just and might be considered handsome, if one appreciated Roman features marked by a wicked scar across the forehead. Certainly his dark eyes were very fine and had set more than one lady – and gentleman! – sighing after him at this corrupt court. He’d bestowed notable attentions on none of them.
Mademoiselle Perez, on the other hand, was a middle-aged female of considerable beauty, when she was in good spirits. Upon her arrival in France, she had quickly joined a private club notorious for its unbounded lechery – although they did not prey upon anyone outside the group, nor indulge in any sins other than lust. All of which made it one of the more disciplined clubs here at court.
“Are you certain you’ve never been trained in rhetoric?” St. Just asked, his thumb rubbing sensually over her hand in a manner totally in contrast to his words. “The way you had the Royal Academy scientists in the palm of your hand, they’d have voted you a member.”
Hélène blushed and laughed. “Truly, you are too kind. I simply read what Monsieur le marquis had written.”
“You answered the questions, did you not?” His eyes lingered on her mouth.
“True, but. . .” Somehow she couldn’t readily assemble her words into sentences. Perhaps if they stepped into one of the small alcoves in the labyrinth or found the center quickly. If they reached it before the other couples, surely they could steel a kiss or two.
He yanked himself away, seeming to breathe a little faster.
She frowned slightly. Surely she was starting to have an effect. All she had to do was continue to stay close. . .
“Very detailed questions they were, too.” His voice seemed slightly breathless. “The one comparing the results of electrical ignition to lighting it with a standard slow match.” He shook his head. “None of that was in your husband’s paper.”
“That was my specialty.” Despite her immediate goals, she beamed at the intellectual interest in his eyes. “Monsieur le marquis thought fire was old-fashioned so he wasn’t interested in it, unlike electricity. So I did all of the experimentation with slow matches.”
“As well as laying powder trails. . .” Jean-Marie mused. He turned her hand over. “My deepest congratulations, madame. You are a very brave woman.”
His thumb rubbed the inside of her wrist for a moment before he kissed it. The warmth of his lips, the slight brush with his strong teeth, all combined to send an electric shock jolting through her.
Their gazes met. She was wide-eyed, breathing too fast – and he looked as unsettled.
He all but dropped her hand before returning it to the previous very proper position on his arm. She flexed her fingers slightly, testing the strength of his muscles – and her own self-discipline.
A moment passed before they began walking again. They rounded one more corner – and stopped in their tracks.
Hélène took a second, long incredulous look at the labyrinth’s center. An octagon, it held the requisite marble statue, in this case, an obelisk rising from a smoothly carved rose granite block of shoulder height to most men. An equally traditional marble bench stood in the center. The occupants of the bench were, however, extremely untraditional.
The vicomte de Saint-Gabriel – whom she’d always considered a foolish young cavalryman – was seated on the bench facing them, his head thrown back, his breeches around his ankles, and an expression of the utmost rapture upon his face. His coat and waist were scattered across the grass, his shirt spread across his chest, and one arm free.
Mademoiselle Perez sat beside and behind him, skillfully milking him like a dairymaid, and – drinking? – from his neck where he arched it over her arm, her cheeks hollowing and her throat muscles moving in unison with her hand. Echoed by his shuddering groans of delight.
A pencil-thin line of crimson slowly trickled over his collarbone and down his chest to his nipple.
Hélène could not believe her eyes. And yet she could not deny them.
A vampire? Impossible.
Hélène shrieked her denial, as scientific reasoning utterly failed her.
St. Just clamped his hand over her mouth and stepped behind her, pulling her against him to control her with his body.
Mademoiselle Perez promptly stopped and lifted her head, triumph flitting across her face. “Oh dear, what a surprise,” she said mendaciously.
“Shut up and help me clean up this mess,” St. Just hissed. “If Don Rodrigo finds her here. . .”
“Why should I protect her?” Mademoiselle Perez spat, neatly expressing her low opinion of Hélène.
Voices were raised in the distance, muffled by the tall hedges.
Saint-Gabriel moaned and nuzzled Mademoiselle Perez, clearly seeking more of what had been denied him. Blood dripped slowly from his neck.
Hélène struggled desperately against St. Just. Mon Dieu, what was happening here? If she ran or screamed or fainted or. . .
Monsieur Perez ran into the enclosed space, hand clapped to his sword, and cast an all-encompassing look around. Hélène shivered when his icy gaze rested on her.
“Don Rodrigo,” Mademoiselle Perez whined.
“Is Saint-Gabriel your creature?”
“Of course, but – ”
“Silencio, Sara. Say nothing more until we are alone.” Hélène did not blame her for flinching at his tone.
“Saint-Gabriel.” The young soldier leaped to his feet, in response to an officer’s sharp summons, his lust-dulled eyes clearing a bit. “The only thing saving your life is your blood bond with Mademoiselle Perez. Pull up your breeches and leave, taking your clothes with you. Do not be seen or suspected by anyone until you are completely recovered. You will never discuss any aspect of this incident with anyone. Understand?”
“Oui, monsieur.” Saint-Gabriel bowed, managing to look obedient and aristocratic despite his disheveled condition. He disappeared an instant later between two files of boxwood, clutching his clothes.
St. Just’s hand still had not relaxed over Hélène’s mouth. Breathing was difficult, but not as much of an effort as believing any of these events.
Monsieur Perez looked back at Mademoiselle Perez, his features harsher than if they’d been carved in stone.
“If you had not guaranteed he would not be harmed by giving you his blood regularly, Sara, that boy would be dead now. You should not have used him as bait for this trap.”
“Wh-what trap?” She came to her feet, straightening her clothes like a bourgeois matron. “I was only sitting here, feeding on a strong young man, as is my right since Jean-Marie denies me.”
St. Just growled, deep and low. His body seemed to vibrate with rage.
“Why here? Why not in your room, where you are guaranteed privacy?” Monsieur Perez stalked the woman. She took a step back and another and another until the obelisk blocked her.
“No, you had to have him here, didn’t you?” St. Just accused her. “Knowing I’d be the first to find the labyrinth’s center, since I can’t resist a puzzle even when I have a beautiful woman on my arm. A lovely lady whom you hate and fear.”
“What of it?” Her face twisted between fear and rage, and she glanced rapidly from one man to the other. “What of it? She is young, and you cannot stop looking at her, no matter how much blood I drink to become more vibrant. Why wouldn’t I want to make her stumble and fall?”
“I will kill you for this,” St. Just snarled and moved toward her, his hand falling away from Hélène’s mouth.
“You’re a vampire,” Hélène whispered. “A bloodsucking vampire.”
“Damn you! Damn you, Sara!” St. Just cursed. “Now you’ve signed her death warrant, since she’s admitted that vampiros exist.”
Excerpt from Bond of Fire by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2008 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved