1921 – Then
The imminent rise of the sun prickled against the back of his neck as Malcolm Kelly strolled along the top of the fifteen-foot wall surrounding Samuel Ellmont’s estate. The stone was imported from Italy, the timbers along the top harvested from shipwrecks off the Western Cape. Ellmont spared no expense, not with his ostentatious estate, and not with his employees. Sometimes it was a pleasure to work for him.
Malcolm leapt lightly to the ground, slipping his hands into his pockets as he crossed the manicured lawn. Lights twinkled around the house in the purpling darkness and a phonograph wailed jazz over the pool. It was mostly empty, except for soggy paper flowers and a couple sprawled over the stairs, sending out little ripples as they lazily caressed each other. A man in a gapping robe snored ponderously from a deck chair. Samuel Ellmont, in all his rotund glory.
Malcolm shook his shoulder. A gasp, following by the smacking of lips, then another snore. He stepped back and nudged the man with the toe of his shoe, not gently.
“I say, Mr. Ellmont. May I go inside?”
“Party’s over, I’m afraid. But go on if you like. Have yourself a drink.” The man’s hand dipped into his robe, where he proceeded to scratch, loudly. Sometimes the arrangement was less of a pleasure.
“Your hospitality is an inspiration.”
Stepping over a mess of broken green and brown glass, Malcolm entered through the open French doors. The threshold brushed against him like a rough animal pelt stroked the wrong way.
Inside, the mighty house full of marble floors and boastful Egyptian relics smelled like smoke, booze, humans and vampires. Weight descended on Malcolm’s shoulders, the buoyant hope that he’d maintained on the walk through the sleeping city evaporating like vapors off a bog. Dierdre was here. She was here and, at a party like this, how could anyone be expected to keep to themselves?
“You’re back early. Afraid you were going to miss something?” Hendrik Vorster appeared at the top of the stairs. A trail of red lipstick ran from his collarbone to disappear into the waist of his lowslung slacks. None on his neck. None on the mouth that he raised a long, thin glass to, draining the contents before tossing it into the corner. “Not that there’s anything to miss. Boring party filled with boring people.”
Anger sprang up in Malcolm, followed by a surge of power that he gripped tight and wrestled down. Despite the clichés about the Irish, he’d never been prone to a temper, not until recently. And Hendrik was often the one provoking that feeling. They’d been friends a long time. Well, they’d worked together for a long time, and the thievery and blackmail business required long, intimate hours. They would have been friends, if they’d liked each other. Mal got along with almost everyone. That had always been his special talent, easing alongside and blending in. Hendrik, he was pretty sure, didn’t like anybody.
But he had stayed at Ellmont’s nearly ‘til dawn, which meant there’d been something he’d wanted here. And he hadn’t come alone. Without asking, Mal knew what had played out while he’d been away. It wasn’t even a puzzle. Hendrik would have left a note or invitation laying where Dierdre would have seen it. He might have bought her a new dress, or wrapped a pretty necklace around her neck, something she would have wanted to be seen in. She’d always wanted, before. When they walked out through the city, without a coin between them, she’d stop in front of a store window with a little gasp, then turn to him with big, pleading eyes. He’d stolen for her a dozen times, but he couldn’t always secure what she wanted. She grieved, honestly took to bed in pain over the loss of things that had never belonged to her. And that was before.
Since her transition, Dierdre was avarice incarnate. Only now, he could satisfy her heart’s desires.
“Where is she?” Malcolm asked, climbing the stairs.
He moved too quickly, losing hold on the power that had grown agitated within him. Hendrik’s brow furrowed, and his wide mouth drew down into a frown.
“What’s got you so riled up?” He gestured around. “Anyone could see you. What would they think?”
“There’s almost nobody conscious in this house, or sober enough to comprehend.” Malcolm had been drunk when Phelan MacInness had come round and demonstrated his abilities. He’d been intrigued, not scared. Not filled with nerves and dread like he was now. What might Dierdre have done, surrounded by the frenetic sensuality of this party?
“We didn’t come together,” Hen said, dredging up an insulted tone even though Malcolm hadn’t accused him of anything. “Take a look around, if you think you should. These are all bedrooms up here.”
Malcolm swallowed the implication. Was it even an insult if it was true? Dierdre was loyal to him. She was. She just got carried away sometimes. She got spun around. Especially when her thirst got to her. But he could take care of her. Descending the stairs, he followed the scent of blood. But that only led to a pair of broken glasses and a discarded napkin that had been used as a bandage. That hadn’t been her then. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring relief.
“What was she supposed to do?” Hendrik called after him. “Sit in the house and knit? She has needs, you know.”
“I don’t want her home because I think she should be knitting,” Mal said. “I want her home for her safety.”
“She’s got the same strength that you and I do,” Hendrik said, drawing his shirt on as he loped down the stairs. “She can take care of herself.”
And that was the problem. She had the same strength, but not the same control. His hand landed on the brass handle of a heavy, mahogany door, but he didn’t turn it. MacInness had said that the transition could be dangerous, that it could be fatal. They’d all taken the plunge – Hendrik first, then Malcolm, then Dierdre. At first he’d been joyous, intoxicated. Thrilled with the skills he’d cultivated as a human and the endless capabilities of his new body. He didn’t need to worry about money. And he didn’t need to worry about being roughed up or worse if he were caught. It was a simple thing now, not getting caught.
His future, their future, was one of possibility. A horizon that stretched endlessly before them.
The only thing to worry about was the hunger.
One night when he’d ventured too far from the city, he’d been overrun by hunger. And a raw, red need had filled him, washing away reason and control. His fangs had elongated and stayed that way. His senses had all sharpened, and every person he encountered lost their shape until they were no longer human in his eyes. They no longer mattered, only the blood inside of them. It had hurt, wrenching himself away from the draw of the blood as he dragged himself home. Back to safety, to sustenance, to his new, undead family. He’d warned Dierdre not to venture too far, not wanting her to suffer as he had. She’d gone sailing with Hendrik and a few dandies he was trying to butter up. A mast had broken. The wind had come up, blowing in the wrong direction. They’d been adrift for three nights before Malcolm and Phelan could find them. She hadn’t just drunk from Hendrik’s marks; she’d consumed them. All that was left was hair and bones, and those had been gnawed upon.
Malcolm’s hand clenched on the handle and the metal groaned when he turned it. The room wasn’t a bedroom but a ballroom, dusty and smelling of fragrant wax. The massive chandeliers were dark, the few pieces of furniture covered in sheets. A man lay sprawled over a half-covered divan. Dierdre raised her head from his chest, and smiled. They were both dressed still. A breath escaped him, an old habit but Malcolm’s relief was so great he couldn’t contain it.
“Malcolm. Darling.” She rose, gracefully smoothing her green satin gown. “I thought you were in Marrakech.”
“I finished the job early.” And he’d rushed home from the port, leaving the feeders and the valet to deal with the luggage.
“If I’d known you were coming, I would have waited.” When she reached the center of the room, she twirled, slim arms lifting, red curls floating around her. “Isn’t this place gorgeous? They should have opened the room. I would have danced all night. Will you dance with me now?”
“Morning is close.”
“What’s the point of all this time if we’re always out of time?” Her head tilted to the side as she fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Dance with me, Malcolm.”
“My man.” She eased into his arms, one small hand reaching around to tease the back of his neck, the other soft and smooth in his. “My man’s always got time for a dance with me. Haven’t you?”
She was so damned beautiful. Soft, creamy skin. That buoyant tumble of curls that fell nearly to her hips. The color had intensified since her change, now as dark as the inside of a rose. Her lips were the same color, only softer. And her green eyes sparked the color of lapis in her passion.
They turned in a slow waltz. Her gown washed slickly against his legs. Her skin was hot against his. She was happy, and she was his, and all was well.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured.
“Then don’t leave me so often,” she whispered back.
“One day I will return and never leave your side again. But Hen and I have to do these jobs. That was the arrangement.”
She sighed, leaning her cheek against his chest. “I know. I do. But I become so lonely without you. I feel so deeply now, so…fully.” Her fingers slid down from his neck to wrap around his lapel. “I miss you. My body misses you.”
Deeply. Fully. She’d never spoken like this before, never behaved as though physical desires swayed her at all. Her strongest reaction had been a sigh after he kissed her, and there had been a certain staged stiffness to that. As if she thought it expected.
His feelings hadn’t changed. He’d loved her even though she hadn’t returned his regard in quite the same way. It hadn’t mattered. His adoration wouldn’t diminish, and if her fondness grew, all the better. And then they had changed, and she had woken ravenous for him.
“I’ll show you how much I missed you,” she said, a dark vibration filling her voice. When she tugged on his lapel, the fabric tore.
He cradled her face and tilted it toward his own. She clutched at him as he bent and claimed her lips.
And then stopped.
She made a pleading sound as he lifted his head.
“It’s not morning yet,” she said in a rush. “Kiss me. We have time.”
She tore his shirt open and ran feverish hands over his chest. But it barely registered. He touched his lips then stared at his fingers, not sure what he expected to see. She tasted sweet, tangy when she’d been drinking. Now her lips held the rot of death.
“What have you done?”
Her voice followed him as he crossed the floor. The man on the divan stared sightlessly at the ceiling. The tears in his neck were deep and jagged, and blackening blood had pooled beneath his body. She hadn’t bitten to feed. She’d gnawed at him, and drunk until he was dead. Then remained there, wrapped around her victim. Mal reached out, hesitated, then closed the man’s eyes. The body was already cooling. He closed his own eyes.
“Dierdre, what happened?”
“Baby.” Her hands landed on his shoulders and squeezed. “It wasn’t me. It was the hunger, and he wouldn’t stay still. He wouldn’t stay still. It wasn’t me. I wouldn’t do that.”
Reaching back, Malcolm covered her hand. His chest squeezed tight and a shudder wracked him. Some vampires never gained control. They were a danger to the rest. It was one of their maker’s only rules. If one of them posed a threat to the family they had to be managed. Or contained.
He stood, pulling her against him. Her hands fluttered, her voice rose and fell on nonsensical words. Her eyes were owlish, but beneath the forced appearance of distraction, she looked irritated. Because he was troubling her over the death of a single human.
“He doesn’t matter,” she said, force in her voice. “Only the two of us matter.”
She’d said that before, and he’d reveled in it. He’d thought it mirrored his own feelings. He adored her, thought of her constantly. Only he hadn’t realized that what she really meant was that nobody else mattered to her. She hadn’t woken ravenous for him. She’d just woken ravenous.
The instinct to run was nearly overwhelming. He loved Dierdre. He still loved her, even with this. His entire body quickened in response to her touch even with the results of her actions right in front of him, even with that hard vibration distorting her voice. His Dierdre.
“It’s okay.” He took her hand and wrapped it around his arm. “It’s almost light out. Let’s go home.”
She walked alongside him, humming as they crossed the threshold of the ballroom, then again when they exited the house. A car rumbled down the driveway, the powerful engine already faltering. Hendrik reclined in the back, a hat pulled low over his eyes. The enthralled driver cracked the side mirror against the gate as he drove through. Not a clean escape, but a determined one. Hendrik had mastered the ability to move on.
Dierdre absently patted at her hair. She had not a drop of blood on her. Her dress was wrinkled, but she looked as though she’d just stepped out of her dressing room. She’d been frozen at the height of her beauty, and he’d known when Phelan lectured them on what to expect after the change that he would never tire of looking at her. Not if they were together a thousand years. Not if they were together forever.
She glanced up, smiling coyly, and hugged his arm.
“I’ve missed you,” she said. “You musn’t go away so much.”
Not his Dierdre. He and Hendrik had changed. Dierdre has disappeared, replaced by a pretty monster.
“I miss you, too.”