Authors: TERESA MEDEIROS
“It’s a woman,” Cuthbert said.
“I can see that,” Julian snapped, his nerves frayed to the breaking point.
The cloaked woman meandered down the street as if she had no particular destination in mind. Julian might have thought she was drunk, but she was neither weaving or staggering. If she were a light-skirt trolling for coins, it should have been easy enough for her to coax the sailor into one of the nearby alleys for a quick coupling or a
as it was known in cruder circles.
He felt some of the tension seep from his muscles as she drew abreast of the warehouse and he realized she was buxom and petite, not tall
and willowy. But his relief was quickly replaced by a more discomfiting emotion. There was something distressingly familiar about the saucy roll of her hips, the glossy dark curls piled atop her head, the challenging tilt of her chin.
“What in the bloody hell…” he breathed.
He blinked rapidly, hoping hunger and fatigue would account for the sight of Portia Cabot gliding right out of his fantasies and down the damp, cobbled streets of Charing Cross.
Despite the seediness of her surroundings, she might have been taking a stroll through Hyde Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Her cloak had slipped off of one creamy shoulder, making her look even more vulnerable. As Julian’s keen eyesight focused on the burgundy ribbon tied around the pale expanse of her throat, he felt his mouth go bone dry with longing.
“Not a very wholesome path for a young woman to take,” Cubby whispered. “Should we intervene?”
Julian wanted nothing more than to do just that. He wanted to leap right down there and shake some sense into her foolish little head, something his brother was apparently unable to do. But some primitive survival instinct made
him hesitate. She had defied Adrian and risked both her life and her reputation to seek him out in the gambling hell. But what if he’d played the role of villain too well? What if her allegiance had shifted? He could think of no sweeter bait for his brother to use to lure him out of hiding.
Cuthbert pointed to the streetlamp on the corner. “Ah, there’s no need for worry after all. She must be meeting someone.”
Someone who had miraculously appeared out of thin air. Someone whose willowy grace made her appear to float even when she wasn’t in motion. Someone who was even now sweeping back the hood of her cloak to reveal the alabaster skin of an angel and a fall of silvery blond hair.
Julian felt the scant nourishment he’d derived from the beefsteaks turn to ice water in his veins. “Dear God,” he whispered, invoking a name he no longer had the right to use.
He scrambled to his feet.
“Where are you going?” Cuthbert demanded, his side-whiskers quivering with alarm. “You’re not going to leave me here all alone, are you?”
Julian seized his friend by the shoulders and hauled him effortlessly to his feet. “I need your
help, Cubby. I wouldn’t have asked you to accompany me tonight if I could have done this alone. But I was afraid we were walking into some sort of trap. I need you to do what you do best—watch my back.”
He dragged Cuthbert to the edge of the loft and pointed to a pair of sandbags dangling from a nearby beam. They hung right over the splintery wooden doors that stood guard over the main entrance of the warehouse. Earlier in the day, Julian had looped the ropes holding them aloft over a nearby peg. “If anyone besides me tries to come through those doors, I want you to loosen the ropes and drop those sandbags on them. Do you understand?”
Cuthbert nodded mutely, his throat too swollen by panic for speech.
“Good man.” Julian clapped him on the shoulder, sparing him a brief but fierce smile.
Then he was gone, moving so swiftly that Cuthbert would have sworn his feet never once touched the rungs of the ladder they’d climbed to reach the loft. Before Cuthbert could puzzle over what he’d seen, a faint shriek, quickly muffled, came from the street. He started back toward the window but a man’s shout and the
thunder of running footsteps drew him up short.
Remembering the charge with which Julian had entrusted him, he stumbled over to the peg where the rope was looped. He cocked his head to the side, frowning. The footsteps were coming from the wrong direction. They weren’t coming from the street but from the ground floor of the warehouse. An icy band tightened around his chest as he realized they had been sharing their hiding place with someone else all along. Someone who was even now racing toward the very door Julian had ordered him to guard.
He reached for the rope, but hesitated, torn by indecision. Hadn’t Julian told him to drop the sandbags on
who tried to come through that door? He hadn’t specified in which direction. The footsteps were drawing nearer. In just a few more seconds, they would be at the door.
Before he could lose his nerve, Cuthbert gave the rope a decisive tug, loosing it from the peg and sending the sandbags plummeting to the floor below.
There were two loud thumps, muffled groans, and then dead silence.
Wincing in belated empathy, Cuthbert peered over the edge of the loft. In the dim light, he could barely make out two shadowy figures sprawled on the dirt floor below. Although he doubted the impact could have killed them, he was confident that they weren’t going to be troubling Julian—or anyone else—any time soon. He smiled and dusted off his hands, rather pleased that he had managed to fell two such giants without Julian’s help.
Portia deserved to be eaten.
She’d allowed herself to become totally consumed with the notion that Julian was both a murderer and a monster and now she was about to be consumed by some bloodsucking witch she should have recognized as a vampire at twenty paces. As she hung helpless in the creature’s deadly grasp like a rag doll caught in the jaws of a snarling mastiff, she found it odd that in these, the last moments of her life, she would be feeling not terror but acute embarrassment at her own ineptitude and bittersweet relief that she had misjudged Julian so thoroughly.
The toes of her slippers scrambled for purchase on the damp cobblestones. The woman
wrapped a handful of her curls around one ruthless fist and gave them a harsh yank, jerking her head to the side.
As she hooked one of her scarlet-tipped fingernails beneath Portia’s choker and prepared to rip it away so she could better reach the soft, vulnerable flesh of her throat, Portia squeezed her eyes shut. She could not help but wonder if Julian would miss her “bright eyes” when they were forever closed.
She waited for those lethal fangs to descend, for that bright, piercing agony to paint her world the color of blood. But nothing happened. She opened her eyes. The woman still had her scarlet claw hooked in the choker. Her fangs were still gleaming only inches from Portia’s throat. But her hungry gaze had been transfixed by something else. Something over Portia’s right shoulder.
Portia took advantage of her inattention to twist around in her arms. Although that powerful hand was still splayed over her jaw, the pressure on her throat had eased a fraction.
A man was walking down the street toward them. No, not a man at all, Portia quickly realized, her heart lurching with hope.
Julian came sauntering out of the mist as if he had an eternity to rescue her, his every motion fluid with masculine grace. With the lamplight lovingly caressing the sculpted bones of his face and the wind stirring his dark mane of hair, he looked like some sort of doomed angel cast out of heaven for committing a sin he could not resist. He had never looked as dangerous—or as beautiful—as he did in that moment. Portia sagged against her captor, biting back a sob of relief.
“Hello darling,” he said as he drew abreast of them, his voice low and silky.
Portia opened up her mouth to reply, but before she could, the woman purred, “Hello, my love. You’re just in time to join me for a little snack.”
Although her mouth continued to hang
open, Portia couldn’t have choked out a word if her life had depended on it.
Julian raked a disparaging gaze over her. “
indeed. A mouthful that small is hardly worth the bother. If I were you, I’d toss her back in the Thames.”
“I was hoping we could keep her.” Portia shuddered as the woman’s tongue darted out to give her cheek an affectionate lick. “She’s rather charming and I’ve always wanted a kitten.”
Julian’s laughter had a cruel edge she had
never before heard from his lips. “Why would you wish to keep her, Valentine? So you could drown her in a bucket when toying with her ceases to amuse you?”
It didn’t seem fair to Portia that such a beautiful name would belong to such a cruel creature. But after all, it did rhyme with
“Excuse me,” she rasped, her throat still raw. “I hate to interrupt this touching little reunion but am I to assume—”
Portia hated herself for flinching, but the sparkling warmth she had always seen in his eyes whenever he looked at her had vanished, leaving them cold and flat. She pressed her lips tightly together to keep them from trembling, forced to satisfy herself with a defiant glare.
“I always knew you’d come back to me,” Valentine said, the gloating note of triumph in her voice unmistakable.
“Come back to you?” Julian snorted. “You’re the one who’s been following me from one end of the world to the other.”
“Only because I knew you’d come to your
senses someday and realize that we were destined to be together.”
Portia’s stomach was beginning to roil. It didn’t help to know that she’d had countless fantasies about saying those exact same words to him, preferably while cradled in his arms and gazing deeply into his eyes.
“Then I suppose that day has finally come.” Julian’s contemptuous gaze skirted over her again. “So why don’t you send the kitten scampering on its merry way so we can be alone?”
“Why waste such a succulent little morsel? I thought the two of us could share her to celebrate our new beginning.”
Portia gritted her teeth against a wave of pain as Valentine trailed a blood red nail across the front of her throat, carving a shallow trench.
Julian barked. She felt a flare of hope but then he scowled, that beautiful mouth of his taking a sulky turn. “I’m not in the mood to share tonight. If I’m going to have her, then I want her all to myself. She can be your gift to me.”
Valentine sounded genuinely surprised. “But you’ve always been so finicky about dining on humans, darling. Have you had a change of heart?”
“How can he change what he doesn’t have?” Portia muttered, renewing her squirming efforts to escape the woman’s vise-like grip.
Valentine shrugged. “Very well. If you want her, she’s all yours. But only if you let me watch.”
She gave Portia a harsh shove, sending her careening into Julian’s arms much as Duvalier had done in the crypt all those years ago. But then Portia hadn’t known he was a vampire. She had pressed her trembling body to his as if he was her salvation.
He wrapped his arms around her, dragging her flush against him. His body was burning with that peculiar fever she now recognized as hunger. Hunger for her.
She shuddered as her own body betrayed her with a perverse thrill at being back in his arms again. She began to fight in earnest, kicking with her feet and striking out with her fists until he was forced to twist both of her wrists behind her back to subdue her. Although she doubted his grip would leave so much as a bruise, there wasn’t an ounce of mercy in it. She might as well have been a helpless fly twisting in the sticky strands of a spider’s web.
“Struggle all you like, little one,” he murmured, his seductive gentleness somehow crueler than all of Valentine’s brutality. “It will only make your surrender all the sweeter when it comes.”
Portia sagged against him, undone by her darkest fear. What if she succumbed to him? What if, in that moment when he pierced her flesh and made her his own once again, she felt not despair but exultation?
His lush dark lashes swept down to veil his eyes. He leaned over her, the lethal points of his fangs already visible. His warm mouth grazed her throat in the caress of a lover, not a monster, and Portia felt her resistance melting away, leaving only desire and shame. If she was going to die, then why shouldn’t it be by his hand, in his arms?
His parted lips lingered against the pulse behind her ear, making his whisper little more than a vibration. “I may have to nibble you just a little, Bright Eyes, but when I shove you away from me I want you to run as if the devil himself were fast on your heels.”
For a fevered moment, Portia almost thought she’d imagined his words. Especially when his
strong fingers ruthlessly ripped away the choker and his fangs descended toward the tender flesh of her throat.
“Wait!” Valentine’s shrill cry froze them both where they stood.
This time there was no mistaking the succinct oath Julian swore beneath his breath.
Slipping her wrists out of his suddenly lax grasp, Portia wiggled around in his arms until they were both facing Valentine. The woman was pointing at Portia’s throat, her scarlet-tipped finger all aquiver.
?” she demanded.
Even though she knew it was too late, Portia clapped a hand to the scars on her throat. Valentine’s accusing gaze glided to her face. “This isn’t the first time you’ve tasted a vampire’s kiss, is it?”
“Perhaps not,” Julian growled. “But I can promise you it will be the last.” To underscore his threat, he grabbed a handful of Portia’s curls and gave them a rough yank.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, throwing him a glare over her shoulder.
Valentine began to prowl around them in a lazy half-circle, the hem of her cloak flowing
behind her like the train of a queen’s ermine-trimmed robes. Her gaze was still fixed on Portia’s face. “Why didn’t you tell me that you were no stranger to our ways?”
“Because you were too busy trying to rip out my throat,” Portia retorted. She lowered her hand, brazenly exposing that throat and her scars.
The woman’s hypnotic green eyes narrowed. “Ah, so the kitten has claws after all. You’d best watch your eyes, Julian.”
But Julian was watching Valentine, his every muscle rigid with wariness.
Portia instinctively shrank against him as the woman reached out one hand and brushed her fingertips over the scars, her touch almost gentle. “Who left their mark on you? Who is your master, kitten?”
Having had just about enough of being bullied by vampires for one night, Portia boldly knocked the woman’s hand away. “I don’t have a master and my name isn’t kitten. It’s Portia. But that would be
to the likes of you.”
Valentine’s eyes widened. “Portia?” She spat the name from her mouth as if it were the foulest of poisons. “
Julian groaned before muttering, “I knew I should have eaten you when I had the chance.”
Portia ignored him, her attention now fixed on Valentine. “How do you know me?”
The female vampire threw her hands in the air with a dramatic flourish. “How could I not know you, what with Julian here constantly murmuring your name in his sleep?”
“Don’t do this, Valentine!” Julian warned. “There’s nothing to be gained from it.”
The woman continued as if he hadn’t spoken, her upper lip curled in a snarl. “
Portia. And then there was that time when he was making love to me and he forgot my name but had no trouble remembering yours.”
Portia gaped at her for a moment in stunned silence, then wheeled on Julian, torn between kissing him and kicking him. “You cried out
name? While you were making love to
His face was so hard it might have been carved from a diamond. “She probably just misunderstood me. I barely spared you a thought while I was away. You were never anything more to me than a lovestruck child.”
Valentine made a skeptical noise that sounded
distinctly like the French version of
Although Portia knew she should be recoiling from the cruel lash of his words, she drew one step nearer to him, gazing up into his glittering eyes. “Is that why you stayed away so long? Because you couldn’t bear the sight of me? The sound of my voice?” she asked softly. “My scent?”
He closed his eyes for an instant, his nostrils flaring involuntarily. “I stayed away because I was relieved to be free of your fawning adoration. I found it to be a burden and a dreadful bore.”
“Good,” Valentine said briskly from behind her. “Then you won’t mind if I proceed with my plans to tear out her pretty little throat, will you?”
Before Portia could react to the woman’s threat, Julian had swept her back into his arms. He held her against his broad chest, sheltering her behind the barricade of his well-muscled forearm. “I’d advise you to keep both your fangs and your claws sheathed, Valentine.”
“Or you’ll what?” the woman purred. “Stake me? Drench me in oil and set me on fire? Cut off my head and stuff it with garlic?”
“Don’t tempt me,” he snarled.
She pursed her lush red lips in a pretty pout. “You really shouldn’t make idle threats, my darling boy, when we both know you’ll do no such thing.” She shifted her mocking gaze from Julian to Portia. “You may have his heart, kitten, but I’ll always have his soul.”