To celebrate the imminent release of True Pretenses (about a small-town heiress who agrees to a marriage of convenience with a con artist from the slums to get her hands on her dowry), here is the traditional free short story about the characters of my last book, Sweet Disorder.
For bn100, who asked for “Nick is a vampire and Phoebe is a dragon.”
Poor child of Doubt and Death
“And there he saw, concealed from Heaven’s rays—
Long banished from Albion’s dreary shore,
Nor suited to her cold and bloodless ways,
Tho’ thrived among us once in lustier days—
Or should I say, in lustier nights—vampiri…”
Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Nick Dymond awoke to pain in his leg and the sounds of people talking in the room next door. He lifted his head, reaching for the heavy curtains that covered his window and parting them an inch. Pitch black out. At least, he thought the human he’d been would have stumbled blindly about. Now, he could see clearly to pick up his watch, and holding it close, he could read that the hands were at twelve and two.
Of course, he’d still stumble. But that was because of his leg, not the darkness.
London was so damn loud, even early in the morning. Loud and foul-smelling. Nick concentrated on focusing his sharpened hearing: Toogood and a woman in the next room, chatting pleasantly about the theater. Keeping my breakfast warm, he thought miserably. For hours, presumably, since the night was more than half over. If he went back to sleep, would Toogood send her away eventually?
He still remembered the poor Spanish girls they’d tried to feed him in the hospital. Frightened and too young, but determined to earn the money the army had promised their parents. His stomach turned.
Nick sat up decisively, and his leg howled in protest. He ignored it, getting painfully to his feet and wrapping himself in his dressing gown. Taking up his walking stick, he hobbled to the door and flung it open.
Candlelight blazed in the sitting room, presumably to make breakfast look appetizing. She was a very pretty young woman, blonde and buxom with freckles, but Nick felt no stirrings of hunger when he looked at her.
How did Toogood even know he liked freckles? Nick hated this, how food and lust had become all tangled up. It wasn’t even a shameful secret; everyone knew it, or they wouldn’t bring him only pretty women to eat. It was so hellishly embarrassing, and it meant that women and pleasure were ruined forever and that he was almost never interested in the food Toogood fetched for him.
Vampires were supposed to hunt for themselves, but Nick…well, he didn’t really go out much these days.
He opened his mouth to say he wasn’t hungry when he heard footsteps in the corridor. Familiar footsteps. “Say I’m not home,” he said instead, and shut the door to his room very very quietly.
A commanding rap came at the door. Nick contemplated hiding in the wardrobe. What was vampirism good for, if it couldn’t even make his damn leg straight? He ought to be able to climb out the window, clamber up to the rooftops and away.
Toogood made a perfunctory effort to keep his mother out, but it only took her about half a minute to get past him and open the door of Nick’s room. He squirmed inwardly, that she’d seen the prostitute outside. They were always prostitutes, because no good English girl would give blood to a vampire. Nick wouldn’t have minded, except that half the time they expected him to want to fuck them too, and getting out of it was so very awkward.
“Good morning,” the Countess of Tassell said.
“Good morning, Mother. Please, you must be tired, don’t let me keep you.”
She smiled evenly. “Not at all, I’ve just come from supper at Hertford House.” Nick tried to remember back before the army, when ‘two in the morning’ meant ‘nearly bedtime’. He could, but distantly. “Are you skipping breakfast again?”
Nick felt annoyed even though that’s exactly what he’d planned to do. “I just woke up.”
His mother leaned into the next room. “Don’t leave until he’s eaten,” she told the girl. Wonderful. Now his mother was talking to his breakfast.
Breakfast wasn’t supposed to be able to talk. It wasn’t supposed to look at you while you were eating it. But Toogood had tried half a dozen ways of preparing previously acquired blood: blood pudding, mulled blood, even blood ices. It was all too foul to be believed. Eventually Nick had had to accept that the only way blood tasted palatable was straight from the vein. “What do you want, Mother?”
“I need you to go to Lively St. Lemeston for me. Tony’s campaign is foundering.”
“And what do you expect me to do?”
His mother sighed. “Nick, how many times have I told you that you can still have a political career?”
“Four million,” Nick said promptly. “You know I’m not interested in politics.”
“You could be a voice for Vampire Emancipation.”
“Four million and one.” Like Catholics, Jews, and Protestant Dissenters, Nick could not put his hand on the Bible and take an Anglican oath before voting or accepting a commission or public office—although in his case, the difficulty wasn’t the oath, but physically touching the Bible. Being barred from public life was the only good thing he could see about his undeath.
“There hasn’t been a voice from within the Opposition speaking for vampires. You could—”
“What do you care about Vampire Emancipation anyway? There can’t be more than a few thousand of us in England. Not enough for our votes to matter.”
Lady Tassell stood very straight. “There are only a few thousand affected men now. What about when the army comes back from Spain? I can’t imagine you’re the only boy they did this to. They’ll come home and find themselves…”
She trailed off, but Nick supplied the missing word. Outcasts.
“Disenfranchised,” his mother finished, recovering her poise. “Certainly any military ambition must be at an end. It’s an appalling injustice.”
Nick tried not to think about it. Careful sophistry had kept him in his established position, since he had already sworn the necessary oath. But a promotion would require a new oath. Even without his leg, he would have remained a lieutenant forever.
Literally forever. “I’m not interested in politics.”
“What are you interested in?” she demanded in exasperation. “Just go to Lively St. Lemeston. Your brother needs your help. There’s a dragon in St. Leonard’s Forest, the eldest daughter of an old Whig dragon family. If she let Tony use her hoard as part of his property qualifications, I know it would sway voters. You probably won’t smell like food to her, and if you do, you’re strong enough to get away.”
Nick noticed she didn’t say fast enough to get away.
Dragons had always been a key symbolic part of the government of Britain. Once, it had been more than symbolic. Back when Englishmen painted themselves blue, kings at their coronation had offered sacrifices to the dragons: herds of cattle, and men and women to serve them.
But the Church and the dragons had had it out, and the Church won. It had taken most of the great hoards for itself, guarding them as jealously as any dragon until Henry VIII smashed open its coffers and divided its holdings between himself and the great families of England.
Nowadays, a few dragons had managed to retain their old wealth, and some even boroughmongered. But most of them had lost their gold and political status, and since 1688 the only nod in the electoral laws of England to their once great power was that a Parliamentary candidate must have a dragon to vouch for him, and that ten percent of his income must derive from assets that had once been part of a dragon’s hoard. It was barely a formality. There weren’t enough dragons left in England to speak for every aspiring MP (although a few made a living speaking for dozens). Most candidates cheated, just as they did with the rest of the property qualifications, and everyone looked the other way.
“And you wonder why I think politics are a joke. A bunch of stupid ancient rules that everyone knows are stupid, so they don’t follow them, which leaves…what, exactly?”
“Dragons still matter to people,” Lady Tassell said implacably. “Tony only needs a few more votes to pull ahead. I’ll send a closed carriage for you tomorrow dusk. Please be packed.” She came closer, petticoats rustling, and put a hand on his cheek. “If you’d fight to get your life back, I’d fight with you.”
“My life is gone,” Nick said flatly. “I wish I could say the same for you.” He’d meant only that he wished she would leave his room and stop ordering him about, but she flinched as if he’d wished her dead. The idea of trying to explain that she’d misunderstood was exhausting. Guilt sat like a stone in his empty stomach.
“Good night, Nicky.” She turned, her hands trembling only a little, and swept out. “Don’t leave until he eats,” she said again, and Nick heard clearly the clink of coins changing hands.
Nick wondered how much more mortifying his life could get. He waited until the door closed behind her, and went into the other room. “I’m very sorry, but I’m not hungry.” He flashed a charming smile at the girl. “We’ll compensate you for your trouble and not mention it to my mother.”
The young woman stood, giving him a charming smile back. “I’m Anne, Mr. Dymond. Why don’t we go in your room and talk for a bit, and then if you still want me to leave I will.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think so.” He went back into his room and shut the door.
Unfortunately, she followed him, carrying a candle—how he wished she’d left it outside—and shutting the door softly behind her. Nick could hear her heart beating faster at being alone with a monster. The sound made his stomach turn over uneasily, like a sleeping hound scenting a hare.
She came towards him, her slippers scraping loudly across the floorboards, and set the candle on his night-table.
He didn’t want her, but he knew he needed to eat. If he didn’t, he would feel weak and sick and Toogood would hover worriedly. It was too late for her never to have been here, so he might as well.
She sat beside him and tilted her head to bare her throat. They all did that. He reached for her wrist. “You have lovely hands,” he said so she wouldn’t feel slighted, and pressed a kiss into her palm. He pressed another to her wrist, openmouthed, and his fangs slid out automatically. They sliced into her skin, blood spilling into his mouth, and he swallowed it because he had to, shutting his eyes and reciting Byron to himself. He ignored her moans.
They might be real—the bite of a vampire carried something to sedate its prey—but they had a certain practiced sound to them.
There shall they rot — Ambition’s honor’d fools!
Yes, Honor decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools, that tyrants cast away…
Her hand pressed against his cock, which he realized with dismay had grown hard. Was it worth explaining that it was only an involuntary physical response to the blood rushing through his body? She would be embarrassed, and possibly angry, and if he kept his eyes closed it did feel good…
Sated with blood, he felt awake, finally. He thought he could make those moans real.
Licking her wrist until the blood began to clot, Nick flipped her onto her back with vampiric strength. He started at her ankle and kissed his way up her thigh.
“You won’t—you won’t put your mouth there, will you?”
This might be the very worst thing about being a vampire. Women used to want Nick to put his mouth there. They used to beg him to do it again and again.
He smiled reassuringly. “I wouldn’t bite you there. My fangs are entirely retracted.”
Her hands tightened in her skirts. “But you might lose control. Please don’t.”
Nick held up his hands, wiggling his fingers. “Hands only. I promise.” She giggled, visibly relieved.
Afterwards, she winked at him and left her card. Nick opened the window to get her scent out of his room and sat on the bed with his head in his hands. Toogood came and stood in the door, discreetly silent.
The country would smell better than London, at least.
“Thank you,” Nick said through his fingers, horribly aware that Toogood probably knew what he and Anne had just been doing. “I hope you didn’t have too tedious a night of it.”
“Not at all, sir. A very pleasant young lady. Interested in ancient Egypt. We are to visit the British Museum together later in the week.”
Nick grimaced. “I’m sorry, Toogood, but I think you’ll have to send her your regrets. We’re going to Lively St. Lemeston.”
Nick’s leg hurt. Very badly. He’d hired a cart to take him and his offering to the dragon’s cave, but the driver had stopped a mile back and refused to go any further, saying everyone knew dragons loved to eat horses. So here Nick was, dragging a tarpaulin bearing a foul-smelling butchered pig by a rope in one hand, and dragging himself forward with his walking stick in the other. At least there weren’t too many trees in this part of St. Leonard’s Forest: despite the name, it was more of a blackened heath.
Nick mentally reduced loss of cunnilingus to the second worst thing about being a vampire, after the loss of internal body heat. The cold he could ignore, and even the sluggish, faintly congealed feeling in his brain, but the pain in his leg intruded on his awareness with astonishing urgency. And since aches and pains were notoriously worse in cold weather, Nick was convinced it would hurt less were he still human. He was dreading January.
Nick spied the mouth of a cave ahead, light flickering as if from a fire within. That must be it.
Drawing closer, he made out two women engaged in mending clothes. The dragon’s servants, presumably. He paused just shy of the threshold, to catch his breath and calm the pain in his leg after the long walk.
The plumper of the two servants appeared at the mouth of the cave. “Who are you?” she demanded.
With the fire behind her, even Nick could see little more than a mass of unruly dark hair and the splendid outline of her curves. He summoned up a smile he hoped was not too flirtatious. “I’m Mr. Nicholas Dymond. I’m here to speak with your mistress about the election.” He leaned in. “If you could tell me anything about her views on the matter, I would very much appreciate it.” He pressed a shilling into her palm.
The other maid popped into view, leaning round and plucking the coin from her companion’s hand. “That’s mine, I believe. I’ll have a hoard of my own at this rate!”
“Sukey, you’re not a dragon,” the first maid said irritably. “What would you do with a hoard?”
“Oh, I think I’d like sleeping on a mattress stuffed with five-pound notes. Don’t that sound comfortable, sir? And here, to earn the bribe I’ll tell you Mrs. Sparks isn’t one bit interested in your election. You’d better toddle off afore she sets you on fire like she did that Tory fellow.”
The first maid began to vibrate with annoyance, rather like a teakettle about to boil. Nick was just thinking how adorable that was when, to his shock, actual steam began to leak from her nose and mouth. It shimmered misty white in the darkness until it rose above her head, where the firelight turned it red and gold.
It was fascinating, and beautiful, and he’d quite obviously mistaken the mistress for the maid. Damn, damn, damn. He’d told his mother not to send him on this mission.
“I’m sorry,” he said as ruefully as he could. “I’ve obviously made a great mistake. I hope I haven’t insulted you with my pitiful offering of a shilling. Now I know it’s you, let me present you with this pig.”
She leaned to look past him, and the light caught a faint pattern of scales on her neck. “That pig is for me?” she asked suspiciously.
“It wouldn’t hurt just to hear him out, surely,” Sukey encouraged.
Nick tried to look harmless. He suspected it wasn’t difficult.
With a heavy sigh that blew steam directly in Nick’s face (smelling faintly smoky and metallic, and surprisingly pleasant after his cold trek), she stepped back into her cave and gestured to him to enter. “Sukey, set up the spit, will you?”
The cave was dry and clean-smelling, but Nick was startled by its bare appearance. At least, it would have looked bare, if the dirt floor and few sticks of human furniture were not strewn with clothes, papers, old magazines, empty teacups, and…were those shed scales? Mrs. Sparks set no great store by neatness, evidently.
Sukey obeyed, and then both women stood back and waited for him to spit the pig and raise it over the fire in the center of the cave.
In the light of the fire, it was obvious Mrs. Sparks wasn’t human. There were snakish green scales on her hands, around her hairline, and curving along the sides of her neck. Her eyes were jet-black, lid to lid, and her nostrils, hard and mattely shining like scales, came to flat, pointed arches. He wondered if her tongue was forked.
“When you’re done staring, can you make yourself useful?” she said crossly.
Nick started. “I’m sorry, I…” He was hardly cutting an impressive figure before her, was he? “I can’t possibly lift that entire pig.”
Her eyes narrowed further. “You’re a vampire, aren’t you?”
Nick’s jaw tightened. “Yes, I am,” he said shortly. “I’m also lame. My leg can’t bear my weight without my walking stick, and I’d need both hands to lift that pig.”
Her face softened. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” Nick looked away, not wanting to see her pity. “Well, you’d better step outside then, because I certainly can’t get it on the spit in my current form. Sukey?” The maid appeared at her elbow. Both women stared expectantly at him.
Nick realized she was going to take her clothes off. All of them. She was going to be naked, so she could…turn into a dragon? Wasn’t she a dragon already?
Steam leaked angrily from her nose.
Nick started. “I beg your pardon.” He turned his back very firmly. Oh, he didn’t want to step out into the wind! He did, however, and leaned against the chilly rock. It wasn’t fair, to deprive him of his own heat and the sun. He’d like to sun himself on a flat rock, like the lizards of Spain. He closed his eyes and pictured one of the small, sleek reptiles, patterned black and brown with bright, intelligent eyes. For a moment he was there, sun beating down, colors yellower and hotter than anything in England…There was a rustle from inside the cave. A rustle, and then a very, very faint sawing noise.
Laces going through the holes of a corset.
Nick was in England again, in the dark and cold and wet, and he didn’t even mind because Mrs. Sparks was taking off her stays. He heard the stays come off, and then the whisper of linen going over her head—
Mrs. Sparks cursed, and Nick heard stitches stretch alarmingly. She was tangled in her shift, then. What would he see if he looked inside? She’d be bent over, trying to free her arms. Would he see her buttocks or her dangling breasts? Were they as large and perfect as they appeared through her clothes? Were there scales on them?
Stupid question. Of course they were that perfect.
He hoped there were scales.
The shift was flung to the floor with an irritated huff, and there was a sort of whoosh. “You can come in now, Mr. Dymond,” she called in a changed voice. It crackled like a fire, and rang like crystal or a golden bell. He stepped inside the cave. She was a dragon.
Nick had never seen a dragon in its true form before. She was smaller than he’d expected—perhaps the size of a large pony. But she was magnificent. She curled and swelled and swooped, her body a queenly green curve he wanted to trace with his hand, her tail a giddy spiral, her legs like the haunches of a lion, her paws webbed and taloned at once. Her neck was sturdily elegant, and her face—her heart-shaped face hadn’t changed much, actually. Her nose had grown larger and pointier, and her messy curls were a row of strange—not feathers, and not antennae, but something soft and wavy and corkscrew-shaped that stood up from her head like a coronet, swaying gently in the still air.
Her wings were furled, leathery and jointed like a bat’s but feathered in blue and black.
With her front claws, she drove the spit through the pig he’d brought and lifted it onto its forked supports. Then Sukey threw a beautiful patchwork quilt over her back, arranging it carefully around the wings. It was an oddly domestic sight.
The maid went to the spit and began to turn it. “So,” Mrs. Sparks said, flashing pointed teeth and not sounding terribly eager, “what did you want to talk to me about?”
For a moment, Nick couldn’t remember. “My brother is running for MP in Lively St. Lemeston. We were hoping you would vouch for him, and let him use your hoard as surety.”
She shifted in annoyance. “Oh. Like the other fellows.”
“What other fellows?” Oh yes, Sukey had said something about setting a Tory on fire, hadn’t she?
“Your brother sent a local confectioner before you. He tried to bribe me with an enormous pudding. Or possibly poison me.”
It was hard to be sure with eyes entirely black, but he thought she rolled them. “There’s a popular Sussex tale about poisoning a dragon with an outsized pudding. I cannot overstate the centrality of puddings to Sussex cosmology—the folk hereabouts like to say that he is afraid to visit us, for fear a Sussex housewife will bake him into one.”
She hissed warningly. “Speak of him, and he shall come.”
The devil, then. “And what do you think?”
“I think he goes where he likes.” She looked a little sad. “All we can do is be ready.”
I’m not ready, Nick thought, and then was embarrassed. Must he react inadequately to even hypothetical situations? The devil was supposed to be fond of vampires, anyway.
He tried to ignore the smell of roasting pig, swamping Mrs. Sparks’s more pleasant scent.
“So if your brother’s man was trying to poison me,” Mrs. Sparks continued, “his method was traditional, and if he wasn’t, his gift was tactless. Fortunately I don’t like pudding, so I wasn’t tempted to find out which.”
“I would have helped you eat it,” Sukey said. “It smelled delicious.”
Nick shivered. “Are you cold?” Mrs. Sparks asked, her black eyes missing nothing.
He put his hands in his pockets and smiled at her, hoping she’d realize what a foolish question she’d asked, be embarrassed, and stop talking.
“You can come closer to the fire.”
“Vampires and fire don’t mix.” A vampire’s flesh was less resistant to fire than a human’s. If a spark caught in his clothing, or worse yet hit his skin, the damage could be agonizing. And it wouldn’t heal until he’d drunk more blood than one person could provide and live. That had been explained to him very carefully in the hospital.
Nick could almost stand near an ordinary fireplace, shielded by a firescreen, without feeling nervous; an open flame was another matter.
The scaly ridges above her eyes drew together. “Deprived of light and heat at once?”
He shrugged. “Unlike a human, I won’t die without them. And my valet is generous with hot water bottles.”
“Are you cold?”
He shrugged again. She prowled towards him, stepping between him and the fire and settling down with a stretch and a graceful arch of her neck. Heat radiated from her like a brick chimney. Nick stepped back politely.
She twitched her shoulders and neck like an annoyed cat. “I hate to be cold,” she told him. “People imagine a dragon is never cold, but that’s because they haven’t thought. A human is warmer than the night air too. That’s why they feel the cold, because the air steals their warmth for itself. So imagine how air feels against my skin. In the winter I steam, Mr. Dymond. There are generally two weeks out of every summer that I don’t feel cold.”
She gave a sigh with strange harmonics in it. “I can’t help your brother. I don’t have a hoard. You’ve probably noticed that my cave is plain and bare. This is the only useful thing I can offer by way of hospitality, so take it. Sit by me and be warm.” She flicked a pillow down beside her with her tail.
It seemed shockingly intimate, but the quilt would be between them, at least. Gingerly, Nick set a hand on her side for balance and lowered himself onto the pillow, praying he didn’t have to stand again in a hurry.
She tugged the quilt from between them with one claw and draped it over him.
Nick was now leaning directly against her scales. They were warm. Better, they were hot, smooth as satin and dry as a bone. They smelled like her, that smoky spicy metallic scent, filling his nostrils and blocking out the sickly odor of cooking pig. Her side was a soft living thing, better than any sofa in the world. He sank gloriously into it, turning his face to the side and feeling her scales against his cheek.
Curling her tail around him, she raised one wing to make a canopy over his head, a feathery tent that brushed his nose with every breath she took. For the first time since Badajoz, Nick was warm. Gradually, as his flesh thawed and his blood ran thin and hot in his veins, he felt almost alive again.
He wanted to thank her—but he didn’t want her to hear how much he meant it. He tried to think of something airy and amusing to say that would dilute the words.
Nick didn’t open his eyes. He was warm, and he’d been having a wonderful dream about lemon cake. He floated for a little longer and then stretched, trying to remember where they’d quartered him this time so he could use his hostess’s name when he complimented her on her mattress—
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was feathers. Blue and black feathers, faintly iridescent in the morning sunlight that drifted through the cave. There was a sunny line in the dirt inches from his feet, and some instinct made him pull them back before he remembered why.
He was a vampire, and he had fallen asleep on a dragon, and now it was day and he couldn’t leave.
Mrs. Sparks appeared to still be asleep, and that bright line was getting closer by the minute. He huddled back against her, wondering how long he could put off standing and rudely waking her, and how badly the sunlight would hurt him through his boots.
“Oh, good, you’re awake.” She raised her head from the floor and stretched her tail. Her back arched, making her wings flutter. “I’ve been sitting here for hours.”
Nick hauled himself painfully to his feet. Not as painfully as he’d feared; despite sleeping in his boots, the prolonged warmth had done his leg some good. Should he thank Mrs. Sparks? You’re like an enormous hot water bottle was probably not a compliment a woman would welcome.
Her stomach rumbled loudly. “You don’t…” She ducked her head, her neck shimmering. “You don’t mind if I eat, do you?”
“Not at all.”
Without further prompting, she fell on the roast pig with teeth and talons. The smell was nauseating, but her relish…it gave him a strange, wistful feeling. “Would you like some?”
He shook his head. “I can’t.”
So many people had asked him to explain it that he was already trying to think how to phrase real food comes back up again so as not to ruin her appetite, but she just said, “Can you drink?”
“Only blood.” There was a certain satisfaction in speaking the horror. “Only human blood.”
She glanced over her shoulder at him. “I’m sorry? You don’t sound happy about it, anyway.”
“Should I be?”
She shrugged with a rustle of feathers. It occurred to him that she’d been a strange beast in a human kingdom since she was born. Maybe it honestly didn’t seem strange to her.
“It’s embarrassing,” he tried to explain. “My mother paid for…” She was a respectable woman. He couldn’t talk about courtesans to her. “My mother talked to my breakfast earlier this week.”
She made an amused sound. “That does sound awkward. My mother usually restricts herself to talking about my breakfast.”
“What about it?”
She sighed, setting down a half-eaten ham as if she’d lost the taste for it. “That it’s too large, mostly. My mother thinks I eat too much even for a dragon.”
Nick blinked for a moment, confused, before realizing that she was rather a plump little thing, as a human. He couldn’t imagine anyone objecting. Lord, those hips! “Mothers are a trial.”
She snorted. “Indeed they are.”
“I…I’m afraid I’m trapped here until sunset,” he confessed. “I hate to intrude on your hospitality.”
She glanced at the cave mouth. “Oh, drat. I suppose I should have woken you. But you looked like you needed the sleep. I’m sorry.” Her eyes narrowed. “You didn’t trap yourself here on purpose to talk to me about my hoard, did you?”
“Of course not!” He’d forgotten all about her hoard. But Tony was expecting him to come back with good news. Or rather, Tony wasn’t expecting it and Nick wanted to surprise him. “We might as well talk about it, though, since I’m here.”
“I’ll walk out and leave you here alone all day,” she threatened. “You’ll be bored to death.”
“Too late. I’m dead.” She thought he’d be bored in a perfectly safe cave in England? After the endless hours waiting for orders in the army, nerves souring his empty stomach?
She snorted again.
“War is a very boring enterprise. I’m inured. Did you really mean it, when you said you’d no hoard at all?”
“I have those eight books.” She waved at a small stack in the corner of the cave. “That’s my hoard.”
“You thought dragons all sat about on gold heaps?” she said sharply. “Well, I thought all vampires were traitors to the nation!”
Nick winced. There had been more vampires in England, once upon a time. But most of them had been Jacobites, and fled to France over the last century. The current age of politeness had no room for men and women with violence in their bones. The English thought vampires savage, backwards, and worse, very nearly Catholic. Nick had been surprised to discover how reviled vampires were on the Continent, and that most Catholics believed vampires damned souls under the devil’s direct control.
The nun who nursed soldiers in the hospital had crossed herself as she hastened past Nick’s room without so much as glancing in. He’d waited for her anyway, her sweet averted profile and the swish of her habit the only beautiful thing in that place.
“I had a hoard,” Mrs. Sparks said quietly. “A small one, books mostly, but you could sit on it at least. I sold it to pay the doctor when my husband was dying.”
She nudged him with her tail—carefully, so as not to overbalance him. “I’m sorry too. Everyone knows you’re a patriot. You were a hero at Badajoz. My brother-in-law printed the dispatch in the newspaper.”
He ignored that, looking around her bare cave. She’d had a hoard and a husband, and now she had neither. Yet she seemed…awake. How did she do it? How did she just get on with things, when nothing was right anymore? There was no way to ask without revealing far more than he wanted to.
It wasn’t fair. Why should Nick have been turned? Why should his life have been unnaturally prolonged, when other people, people who mattered, were gone? He supposed that was always the way of things, preternatural interference or no: some people escaped death, and some didn’t, and there was no rhyme or reason to it. “They didn’t turn the enlisted men in the field hospitals,” he said. Let her try to see him as a hero now. “Only the officers who had lost too much blood to survive without it. They thought the common soldiers would be incapable of controlling the bloodlust and keeping to army discipline. They didn’t think it safe to send them back to England afterwards. But experienced officers were too valuable to lose when they could be retained. They didn’t know yet that my leg was ruined.”
She laughed mirthlessly. “They thought a bunch of rich boys would be better at control?” Her voice demanded: when did you ever have to deny yourself anything? There had been more than eight books in his nursery.
“They did think it. They thought…” He shut his eyes, remembering waking up in that hospital. The place reeked of blood and he’d been desperately, wrenchingly, world-endingly hungry. But he’d known it was his duty as an officer to set an example, to smile and make a joke, and he’d done it even though something in him was roaring to fall on the still-warm corpses and feast.
One of those corpses had been his friend Wakefield, whom the doctors had been too late to turn. Nick had been trying not to cry and trying at the same time not to sink his teeth into Wakefield’s arm. But he’d pulled himself together, because he was a gentleman.
“So do you think they ought to have turned everyone, or let everyone die?”
No one had asked his opinion before. His mother thought it was an atrocity, and his brother Stephen just insisted over and over that he was glad Nick was here, and that nothing else mattered. Mrs. Sparks waited patiently, her black bottomless eyes sympathetic in the way people were sympathetic to strangers, and he could say They should have let me die without fear of hurting her feelings.
“I don’t know,” he said. “One or the other, though.”
She nodded. “You ought to talk to my brother-in-law. He writes a scathing exposé, even if I have to correct his grammar before it goes to press.”
“Your husband was human, then?” Otherwise, surely his mother would have had him asking this newspaperman to vouch for Tony.
“There aren’t enough dragons for us to only marry each other. Although my mother seems to believe otherwise.”
“Was it a difficulty?”
She laughed. “Everything was a difficulty. We didn’t really get on. That blackened heath out there? It was…well, St. Leonard’s Forest has been mostly heath for generations, but there used to be heather and bushes and that sort of thing. Dragons burn when we’re angry. I always thought…I thought he’d be afraid of me after a while. Sometimes I wished he was, so he’d shout at me less. But he wasn’t.”
There was a silence.
“Aren’t you hungry?” she asked. “You can’t go all day without eating.”
“I’ve gone plenty of days without eating,” Nick snapped. “I’ll be fine.”
“I won’t become overwhelmed by bloodlust and attack you, no.”
She raised her brows. “I’d like to see you try.”
So would Nick. Could he drink dragon’s-blood? Surely he wouldn’t find her smell so delicious, if he couldn’t. But perhaps that was only the latest cosmic joke he was expected to pretend to find funny.
“When you say you’ve gone plenty of days without eating,” she said hesitantly, “you mean…in the army?”
He should say yes, of course and move on. He shrugged.
“You’ll make yourself ill.”
“I don’t think vampires can be ill.”
“You look peaky to me.”
“I’m pale. Because I’m a vampire.”
“I don’t mean that,” she said stubbornly. “You look…tired. Even after sleeping for fifteen hours. You can’t possibly go all day without food.”
I hate eating! he wanted to say. “Surely it should be fairly easy to understand why someone might not be eager to feast on human blood.”
She looked sad. “I used to starve myself sometimes, you know. Part of me thinks that if I had the willpower to do it now, I could look like my sister. But…I only made myself hungry and tired and cross, and snuck into the kitchen at night to steal food from the icebox.”
“I’m not trying to lose weight!” he said hotly. “I just…have you ever had to eat from a stranger’s wrist? It isn’t the glamorous experience you may be imagining.” He flushed lukewarm with shame, thinking about the unwanted erections.
“Well, then, does it have to be a stranger?”
“So I ought to court a mistress in order to have a steady food supply. Can’t you see how degrading a suggestion that is? How degrading the whole situation is?”
“Is it…” It was odd to see a great magical creature look shy, but of course, scales and wings or no, she was a respectable woman. He had been far too frank with her already. “Must it be…a mistress? And not a friend?”
Nick’s entire body shut tight against the question, as though his skin could become a wall if he sat still and tense enough. “Yes,” he said shortly.
She sighed. “That does seem rather difficult.”
Nick kept his lips shut tight.
“I don’t…” She shifted indecisively. “I can’t keep you here hungry all day! I’m a poor hostess but not so poor as that. My father would turn over in his grave. Whatever we had, he was always ready to share it. I meant to ask if you can drink dragon’s-blood, but…”
The tension in Nick’s body changed. “I would never ask you to do something so distasteful.”
Her face turned a brighter green. Was she blushing? “So you can drink dragon’s-blood.”
“No one’s told me anything about it,” he said tightly. “It probably doesn’t come up very often. But…” How to say, animals don’t look or smell appetizing, and you do? and make it not sound insulting? “I think I can. Dragons are nearly human.”
Even in the throes of her embarrassment, she sniffed at the ridiculousness of that idea. “Then I think I could manage it, if you wouldn’t find it distasteful. I hadn’t realized that…attraction was required.”
Splendid. Now if he didn’t drink her, she’d take it as a rejection. “That isn’t the problem. You’re a beautiful woman.”
She shuffled backwards, skeptical and embarrassed.
“I don’t think you understand how intimate an experience it is,” he said as delicately as he could. “It isn’t…there is nothing about it that is proper, or polite.”
She frowned. “I don’t know what that means. Good Lord, I’m a dragon and a widow, how bad could it be?”
“I have been told it’s a pleasant sensation, being bitten,” he said. “Rather like drinking a glass of wine.”
“Is that bad?”
Nick had tried and tried to like it. He had tried to think of it as giving something back for what he took. After all, he wouldn’t have minded if one of them had really wanted to drink a glass of wine first. But he always felt embarrassed for them, for their giggles and sighs and the way they smiled at him afterwards. He never felt the pride he used to take in pleasing a woman.
Because they were enjoying it and he wasn’t, he realized. If he weren’t concealing an ocean of distaste and unhappiness, there would be no reason to blush for their ignorance of it. He went doggedly on. “And I…the blood…sometimes there are physical reactions that can be…disturbing. To a chaste woman.”
She blinked at him. “Are you…? No, I’m about to sound like an idiot.” She puzzled it over for several more seconds before saying, “Mr. Dymond, are you telling me that your—your male part might stand?”
Nick covered his face with his hands.
“Oh, thank God you did mean that. That would have been a mortifying misapprehension.” Nick wished he had stayed in London. She smelled so damn good. It wasn’t fair. “Mr. Dymond…of course it isn’t proper, but I…I would look away, if you wished. You’re right, I hadn’t realized how personal this must be. But you really ought to eat, and there isn’t anyone else here. If I’d woken you up, you would be in town and could choose for yourself. And now I’m bullying you, aren’t I? But if you would forbear to be embarrassed by my…” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I find you remarkably handsome. I wouldn’t tell you, except that perhaps you would feel, if you discovered it later, that I had taken advantage of you, or…”
He was a little overcome by her bravery, in talking so long without a response. In being willing to explain herself so fully.
“You shouldn’t starve,” she repeated stubbornly. “I think we could keep it a friendly exchange, if we wished to.”
He reached up and brushed his hand along the tips of her feathers. “What if I didn’t wish to?”
She swallowed, a convulsion in her long green throat. “I met you yesterday evening. I’m not going to bed you this morning.”
Nick felt surprisingly relieved.
“But we could keep it a friendly erotic exchange. If you wanted to.”
Nick was so hungry that the rush of blood to his cock at the firm way she said erotic made him dizzy and faint. Probably he should do this. Probably it was just good sense. “I want to,” he admitted.
She smiled, baring sharp teeth. “Turn around so I can change.” He obeyed. There was that whooshing sound again, and then human footsteps close behind him. She was naked. Stark naked and a scant few feet away.
“All right,” she said at last. “You can turn around now; I need you to lace my stays.” She wore her stockings and shift, her stays held over her breasts like a shield. Her hair was in a clumsy bun, a few pins already working their way free. Nick tried not to look too hungry. She handed him the lace and turned around. He saw clearly the pattern of scales down the back of her neck, following her vertebrae down beneath her shift. He could see the shape of her back, where linen fell from her shoulder-blades and caught and pulled at the swell of her hips.
He set his walking stick against the wall for a moment and stood on his good right leg, threading the lace through the lowest eyelet. His fingers brushed that magnificent curve below her lower back, and Nick wished it were possible to do this with his eyes closed, because all he could think about was pulling her flush against him.
Her heart was racing, too, her blood quickening. He could sense it. She wanted him. It took two stanzas of Childe Harold before Nick could go on with his task.
He unfocused his eyes and didn’t think, didn’t look, he was a tree stump and she was a set of shapes without meaning or context. She pulled on her petticoat and her gown, and he buttoned them for her.
She was fully dressed now, but he couldn’t unsee what he’d seen. The polite fiction of dress couldn’t hide her body from him, couldn’t make it a neutral thing. She turned. “Are you ready?”
He couldn’t think about it. He nodded.
She licked her lips nervously. Her tongue was indeed forked. Nick’s cock, already half-hard, stiffened entirely; he hoped she didn’t notice.
Shyly, she held out her wrist. He could see blue veins beneath her skin, and the scales on her fingers. He was roaringly hungry. He took a step closer. Part of her hair had already fallen from her bun; he brushed it back, baring her neck. She drew in a breath.
“May I?” he asked.
She swallowed, and then she tilted her head up and to the side, so he could see her pulse fluttering.
“I won’t hurt you,” he promised. As he said it, he realized his fangs were already out. Would she be frightened?
“I’m a dragon,” she said scornfully. “I know you won’t.”
He would have liked to kiss her pulse-point first, but with his fangs extended it would be awkward and he’d probably cut his lip. He leaned in slowly and breathed on the spot. She shivered, and he remembered that his breath wasn’t hot any longer.
The knowledge hurt. He imagined how his mouth would feel for her, a cold slimy thing on her neck, and almost took her wrist after all.
He felt her hand at the back of his head, drawing him closer. He shut his eyes and bit her as gently as he could.
Blood trickled into his mouth, hot and smoky and spicy. Oh yes, Nick could definitely eat this. Its metallic tang wasn’t copper; he pressed closer, savoring it, letting it spread slowly across his tongue like a good red wine. He tried to sort out the elements that composed it.
She gave a happy, satisfied sigh, her fingers relaxing in his hair. Nick felt alive, awake, and—giddy; as always, it was a shock to realize how hungry and tired he’d been before eating. He was aware of every breath she took, of the slight hitches in them. With his eyes closed, he yet knew where her body curved: as if it were his, or as if his own soul had expanded to combine with the air and he could sense where it stopped against her skin. Nick could feel his own soul.
God had made the vampire, too.
Usually when he ate, he counted the seconds anxiously, trying to determine whether he was still hungry—but it wasn’t necessary. A pint of blood would fill most vampires’ stomachs, and most humans could safely lose a pint provided they ate a good meal afterwards. He let himself drift, moment to moment, and drew away when he felt satisfied, licking carefully at the punctures he’d made in her beautiful throat.
“You were wrong.” Mrs. Sparks’s voice was tinged with happiness. “It’s better than drinking a glass of wine.” She sat clumsily on the ground, loose and relaxed instead of tense and tight as she’d been earlier. Pride suffused Nick. He’d done that.
“Your blood tastes wonderful.”
She smiled smugly. “That’s because I’m a dragon. Gold instead of copper in my blood. Much better.”
“No.” He felt foolish immediately, but stood his ground, rather to his own surprise. “It’s because you’re you.”
He’d surprised her too: her black eyes widened, her smile spreading bemusedly across her face. “In that case, I shall admit to doubting that another vampire’s bite would be equally…” She trailed off, searching for a word. “Intoxicating.”
Nick felt a sharp twinge of answering happiness, painful as blood rushing into a frozen limb. We still have the whole day ahead of us, he thought.
He’d forgotten that could be a good thing. But it really, really was.
Thanks for reading! If you’re interested:
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