Vampire InstinctJoey W. Hill
1954, Eastern U. S. coastline
SINCE Elisa was gazing out the west-facing window of the private plane, she had first glimpse of the string of islands. Outlined in white foam, they were like flecks of green and brown jewels amid a vast expanse of deep blue sea. The islands were shaped like a question mark, a symbol that became even more pronounced as the plane dropped out of the filmy white cloud cover. The sudden flash of sunset made her squint and start back, despite its rose and gold beauty. She steeled herself against the heave of anxiety that flopped on an empty stomach. Well, not empty. A cold, tight knot she couldn’t loosen had become her belly’s permanent companion these days, like a dour, stillborn fetus, its potential terminated before it was realized.
Stop it. Pushing that away, she focused on the islands. This was a new place. A new start. She tried to make herself feel that, drawing a deep breath, letting it out. She’d started over countless times, hadn’t she? Ever since she was a child, born to an Irish prostitute in Perth. She’d been thrown on the streets to beg, steal and fend for herself practically before she could walk. Pulled in by a copper with a kinder heart than most, he’d found her work in a household as a cook’s helper, where she’d earned herself up from that to a housemaid. When she got pretty, she rucked up her skirts for the man of the house if her job was on the line. Getting rooted was nowhere near as bad as hunger or facing the dangers of the streets.
Things changed again, though, when an unusual dinner guest, a woman with sad but oddly still eyes, had paid a considerable sum to take her into her employ on her Western Australia sheep station. Elisa hadn’t known Lady Constance was a vampire. Not then. She’d sent Elisa to school, taught her how to dress and take care of her hair and nails properly. Even how to speak like a proper lady, eradicating the colorful common vernacular that might have kept her relegated to a lower rank in a household. By the time she learned the nature of her current Mistress, Elisa was so grateful for her kindnesses it didn’t really matter. Vampires were just another part of an unpredictable life.
The purpose of all those preparations had become clear the day Lady Constance brought Elisa to her room and explained her circumstances. “My daughter will come soon. When she does, you will repay my kindness by giving her your absolute loyalty. ” The next morning, the sad-eyed woman had walked into the sun, disintegrating into ash while her consort, Lord Ian, slept on undisturbed. After he heard the news, Elisa remembered he’d drummed his fingers once on the table in irritation, then asked his human servant to season his breakfast blood with the cranberry-flavored sherry. He’d moved that servant into Lady Constance’s room before the wind had carried away the lingering remains of her ashes.
The arrival of her daughter, Lady Daniela, had put an end to all that. Elisa tightened her chin, vicarious satisfaction in the recollection. The female vampire had decapitated Ian at the dining table—that was a mess to clean up, for sure—and within a month had taken over as Region Master of the northwest territory with the help of her bushman servant, the quiet, handsome and altogether likable Devlin. Lady Danny made Elisa her second-marked servant right away, teaching her things about herself and her own sensuality that those previous ham-handed, clumsy employers never had, making Elisa feel strangely empowered. Until that fateful night.
Closing her eyes, she tried to shake away the horrific images before her mind could fill with them. She guessed she’d always been a simple soul, with a sturdy cheerfulness to prepare her for the life God had seen fit to give her. No matter her lot, there were always things to be thankful for. Particularly since Lady Danny had taken over. For a while, she’d been able to laugh with the other staff over nonsense, enjoy the cook’s dry humor, take secret glimpses at a new stockman who had a handsome smile and arse. Stretch out in her soft bed after a hard day’s work, knowing that in Lady Danny’s house, no one would be creeping in to bother her.
She’d pulled herself out of the muck that others had thrown upon her often enough, but she’d never experienced the bog of her own mind. Blood and screams were pushing in at the corners of such memories even now. In desperation, she groped for one of her best, though she’d never shared it with anyone, not even Willis.
He might not have called her a fool for it, but others would, and she didn’t want the memory sullied by the truth. It had been in her second employer’s home. He was far wealthier than Mr. Collins, her first employer. One of her tasks was laying out the dining room for grand dinners. Usually, she was all alone in the room, and that one day, the silence of it had caught her. After she’d finished the job, she’d gone to the door, turned to survey her handiwork. Dust motes had moved lazily in the sunbeams pouring through the tall windows, drenching her corner of the room. The mahogany sheen of the table, the beautiful gold-edged dishes, the sparkle of the wineglasses, the polish of the silver—it was all like that because of her, because she’d cleaned and arranged it.
When they sat down to eat that night, they might or might not notice how lovely and perfect it all was, but she did, and knowing she’d helped make it so gave her a swelling contentment. Hard work didn’t bother her none, and truth, this was really what she most liked doing. Making small corners of the world lovely to give pleasure to others, take care of them. Lately, she’d decided that Heaven would be having the mind wiped of everything but such simple memories.
Of course, with Danny, maybe she’d gotten too used to life being soft, which made it easier for something terrible to knock her off her feet. Like having the man she loved torn to pieces ten feet away and then being raped by the vampire who did it. Victor had been soaked in Willis’s blood, had it dripping from his fangs before he’d stabbed them into her flesh, punctured her with sharp talons, rutted upon her . . .
She shuddered, pressing her fingers hard into the chair arms.
“It’s all right,” Thomas murmured next to her. “Just a little turbulence is all. ”
Opening her eyes, she glanced at him with despair. The somber brown eyes behind the wire spectacles reflected he wasn’t talking about the plane. He’d stated it that way just to save embarrassing her. He didn’t touch her, despite her obvious distress, and for that she was grateful and unhappy at once. She’d been skittish about a man’s touch, not because she feared Thomas, Dev or any of the others, but because it brought back Victor’s brutal, bruising grip. She craved contact to save her from the void of her own grief, her guilt, only not just any contact. A touch like Willis’s, gentle and loving, the merest graze of his fingertips communicating that he knew her, saw her . . . loved her. Would Willis have been so eager to help her with the vampire children if he hadn’t felt that way?
She’d thought her affection for the lean stockman was one-sided. But when Danny had taken in the seven children that the previous Region Master had unnaturally turned into vampires, Willis had volunteered to serve with Elisa as a blood source to them. She’d known it wasn’t one-sided then. Not the way he met her gaze, sending heat prickling over her skin, a flush rising to her cheeks.
He’d been such a good man, too. Spoke little, but there was nothing on the place he couldn’t do. When Dev traveled, Willis served as station manager. She could watch him all day long and never tire of it. Working with the sheep, mending fencing, riding a horse. Willis put her on one of the brumbies, sat her in front of him to teach her how to ride. He wouldn’t let her get scared. That was where he’d kissed her the very first time. Making her lean her head back on his shoulder, he’d placed his lips over hers, giving her the taste of sun and tobacco, sweat and man, the press of his thighs on the outsides of hers. A man who was integrated into the world around him, the earth, air, wind and blazing heat of it.
She expected him to coax her to ra
ise her skirts that very night, maybe in a corner of the stables. She might have done it, for the earlier ones had simply taken what they felt she owed them. Coated with courtesy or not, their demands had been implacable. Willis was the first who could make her heart pound up in her throat, who obsessed her with the way his brown, callused hands moved over a horse’s reins or handled everything from a fence post to a bucket. She’d been quite mad over him, like a girl with her first crush, and maybe it had been. The first time in her life she’d had that luxury.
Lady Daniela had marked her, so of course Danny could read her thoughts at will. When her feelings came to light, Danny surprised Elisa with her protectiveness. Dev was sent to give Willis a thorough talking-to, reinforcing that her maid was not a simple tumble. But Elisa knew it wasn’t that not-so-veiled warning that made Willis deal honorably with her.
He didn’t find a stable for her after that first kiss, or even the second. The third time he kissed her, though, it was with more urgency, but he broke away first, his hands flexing on her shoulders. She would have done for him then, but he’d given her a little shake, a fierce look.
“Value yourself more than that, girl. I want you bad, I do, but I want you to take me as the man you love, not the man you expect no better from. When you think that’s the case, then I’ll make you mine. For keeps. ”
An incredible thought. For keeps. Man and wife.
But that dream was gone, lost in blood and savage animal grunts, the echo of her painful screams.
Thomas was there, with a handkerchief for the overflowing tears. With the right timing, when the need to flinch was overwhelmed by the need to cling, he eased his arm around her. Turning into his chest, she buried her sobs there as he held her close.
She felt safer with Thomas than most, because he was a monk. A monk who also happened to be a third-marked servant. He belonged to Lady Lyssa, a powerful friend of Lady Danny’s. It wasn’t Elisa’s place to pry about it, but she certainly wondered about him. A resolute celibate, he emanated the care and compassion a true man of God could offer. She took it now, seeking no answers where there were none, giving in to another bout of the endless grief.
He really was the biggest idiot in the world, Mal reflected. Just because he owed Danny a favor didn’t mean he owed her a bloody pound of flesh. The trouble with women was they had a serpent’s ability to coax and persuade a man to do unlikely nonsense. Like taking in six fledgling vampires who should have been exterminated as mistakes of nature. He guessed it could have been worse. It had been eight.