Blood. Sweet, sweet blood thickened with terror. The girl in his arms fought with weakening desperation, her life rushing away through the crimson tide pulsing from her with each frantic beat of her heart. Intoxicating copper heat coursed across his lips, suffusing him with its nourishing power.
Her moans grew fainter as his poison saturated her body. The exquisite torture of emptying his venom flooded his muscles with godlike power, and he tightened his hold, crushing her fragile, merely human form against him. Her gasp of pain drove a spike of lusty pleasure through him. He released her neck to watch her blood flood across her shoulders to stain her flimsy gown.
A waste perhaps, but he could find another. The silent, horrified plea in her dulling eyes spurred his lust, and he ripped the sodden dress open to bare her cotton stays. A hand batted feebly, a near-unconscious impulse to protect her vanished modesty.
Little whore. She’d no need for modesty with him. He had no interest in her person, not yet. Not until she was at the brink. Then he’d spread her legs and revel in her death throes.
Yes. Yes, that peak of ecstasy neared, her glazed eyes beginning to fade. She drew a hitching breath, and he dropped her limp body to the mud, reaching for the fastenings to his breeches.
The clatter of hooves and creak of heavy wheels broke his concentration, his anticipated pleasure vanishing.
With a frantic bound, he hurled himself into the velvet black shadow of the alley behind him. Frustrated desire boiled through him as he watched the carriage lurch to a halt. A murderous rage rose, urging him to attack the interlopers. He attempted to quash it, but the slavering beast of his hunger did not want to be assuaged. The girl was his rightful prey, and he would be damned if he would allow mere humans to drive him off. He readied himself, prepared to lunge when the correct moment presented.
The tiniest of breezes stirred the air as the passengers descended from the barouche. It carried the oh-so-faint scent of the intruders, driving him back into the shadows.
“Imbecile!” The word escaped him in a hiss. He peered around, forcing his eyes to see, his ears to hear. As if a veil had been drawn back, he realized he stood almost in the heart of London. How had he followed the girl so far without recognizing his danger?
At least one of the men in the carriage knew him by sight and scent. Worse, if they were to meet, his enemy was duty-bound to kill him without hesitation. He twitched, annoyed, uncertain—wanting his prize but unwilling to face his opponent at this moment.
His hunger stilled, replaced by an urgent need to flee. Later. The time would come, but that time was not now. With a last look at the shuddering girl behind him, he forced more venom to his muscles and shivered in delight as he fled into the night.
* * * *
Morgan Holland clenched his teeth against an impious curse as the carriage lurched to an unexpected halt, knocking his skull against the lacquered wooden panel behind his head. Inertial momentum pitched his companion face forward against the opposite seat with bruising abruptness. Morgan gave the trap door over his head a savage thump with his fist, even as he reached to help the Baron of Colbourne up off the floor.
“Blast it all, I’m fine, Holland,” Colbourne barked.
Morgan smothered a grin at his master’s temper over his bruised dignity. He gestured at the gaping tear across the knee of Colbourne’s superfine trousers. “Perhaps we should return home for a change of clothes before we continue to White’s.”
Colbourne scowled. “Damn. Weston just delivered these this week. I’ll have to commission a new pair.”
“As you say, my lord.” Amusement warred with Morgan’s ringing head as he fought to keep a smirk off his face. Colbourne’s penchant for fine clothes had been a constant source of humor between them.
“Don’t be smug, Holland. Just because you managed to maintain your seat is no reason for a swelled head.”
The dour tone proved too much, and a highly inappropriate snort evaded Morgan’s control. Jeremy Takeshi Yamakawa Colbourne, Fifth Baron of Colbourne, took great pains to appear neat and elegant for any evening revelry. Since his Japanese ancestry drew the derision of his peers, he always maintained a flawless nobleman’s appearance. Morgan felt privileged to be among those few who could jest about the habit without giving offense. Moreover, the unique circumstances of Morgan’s employment had built a bond between them, a bond closer to friendship than master and servant.
A sharp rap at the window halted Colbourne’s next salvo even as he drew breath for the words, undoubtedly to cast unmeant aspersions on Morgan’s ancestry. The words died at the sound of their driver’s frantic rap on the door.
It seemed the difficulty interrupting them was more than a mere rut in the road.
“This needs your attention, my lord,” Toby quavered, fear plain in his voice.
Morgan felt a chill worm its way down his spine, a chill having nothing to do with the damp air outside the carriage door. Colbourne’s handsome face tightened, his grave expression igniting an answering spark of alarm in Morgan. He followed his master into the dank night, and nearly choked.
“Plague of the ages!” Colbourne’s biting exclamation did not quite carry the weight of a bellow, but it might as well have been a shout.
The night air carried a familiar coppery tang, laced with the faint odor of bile. Morgan knew the smell, of tainted blood and death. When he’d first met Colbourne, the man had been covered in the same bloody aroma. Morgan could not see this poor soul, not yet, but the smell left no doubt.
” He’d never encountered one, only read in books what they were, what they did. Read, and seen what had happened to his master, the Baron of Colbourne, one of the preeminent nosferii
nobles in England. Or anywhere else. The last nosferatu to hunt here had almost cost the country its most needed protector.
Colbourne cast a keen glance his way but said nothing, just stepped around the corner of the carriage for a look at what had bollixed their plans for the evening. Morgan followed, suppressing the urge to gag at the foulness of the air. He tried to keep his strides casual, as though he were walking into yet another evening entertainment, not around the carriage corner for a look at a shredded human being.
Colbourne quirked an eyebrow at Morgan’s calm facade. “No one would think twelve years ago you were a mere tenant farmer, untutored in such things.”
“Even a farmer faces death, my lord.” A true enough statement. After all, Morgan had tended to enough carrion when he was younger: dead livestock, headless chickens after foxes raided the coops. Yet none of his experience prepared him for the putrid aroma hovering over the slumped form in the road. The rank odor was fouler than the oldest carcass he’d ever cleared from his fields. With reluctance, he turned his full attention on the unfortunate victim.
“God!” The exclamation burst from him at the appalling sight that met his eyes.
The brown dirt of the road had turned to mud, glistening with the darkness of spilled blood. A young woman lay trembling in that crimson sludge, her neck savaged and raw. The gaping wounds reeked from the pungent slime coating them.
“Well, she lives, Morgan.” Colbourne sighed, as though the fact was unworthy of celebration. “At least for the present.”
“For the present? Is there nothing to be done?” Morgan could not tear his eyes from the girl. She couldn’t have seen more than sixteen, eighteen years at best.
“From the smell of things, the abomination emptied his venom into her.” Colbourne knelt in the mud, oblivious now to his appearance. “See?” He pointed to the ragged edges of the wounds on the girl’s neck. “There are multiple bites here, some more recent than others.” He laid a gentle, gloved finger near the deepest one. “This bite is hours old, and she is nearly exsanguinated. I am amazed she can still draw breath.”
“Is it too late for a turning?”
caught Colbourne’s attention. His master stood, searching Morgan’s face for something. Then he sighed, perhaps finding no answer to what he sought.
“It is far too late. At this point, all we can do is ease her passing by treating the wound and dosing her liberally with laudanum. I doubt she’ll notice, but it should be done nonetheless.” He gave Morgan another cryptic glance. “I suppose it’s time to introduce you to the real meaning behind the existence of the Colbourne title. I’ll call you to my study after I have fed. In the meantime, you might want to do some research into turnings. The library has plenty of material for your reading.”
Research? Morgan felt the faintest flush of embarrassment warm his neck. It seemed he’d touched on a sensitive topic. He turned to the coachman. “Toby, get the lap blanket.” He considered for a moment. “And your long coat.” Between the blood, the sodden clothing, and the general mess, two layers should provide both warmth for the young woman and protection for the carriage.
Toby returned, and Morgan watched as Colbourne bundled the girl tightly in the coat, wrapping her head to toe in the blanket. When he lifted the fragile burden, Morgan attempted to assist him, only to receive a flat denial.
“This slime will eat through your hide,” Colbourne reminded. “Don’t forget your teachings, Holland.”
Morgan stepped back, feeling the Compulsion his master laid behind the words. He suppressed a sigh. When Colbourne used such a trick, it usually meant unpleasant instruction ahead.
They rode home at a rapid clip, carriage swaying on its springs at Toby’s urgent pace. Morgan could see the lax bundle in his master’s lap out of the corner of his eye, though he did his utmost not to stare. He focused instead on the adorning crest of the panel immediately behind Colbourne’s head, little good though it did him. Every time he relaxed his control, his eyes flew inexorably to the doomed girl. At some point, he glanced down again and discovered her hitching breaths had ceased.
Colbourne’s dark eyes were shuttered. Even in the dimness of their carriage, distress showed in the line between his brows and the bunched muscles of his jaw. Morgan reached across the gap separating them, called to soothe his master’s pain. Dark lashes lifted, revealing Colbourne’s grief at his failure.
Tonight’s enjoyments were meant to be a prelude in advance of Colbourne’s Contracted feeding; a bit of casual camaraderie to make amends for the awkward strain that had recently come between them. With this appalling discovery, the emotional toll on them both could hinder the process. Worse still, it might encourage Colbourne to postpone the feeding.
A tinge of red outlined those dark eyes. “Don’t worry, Holland. I’ll have myself under control by the appointed time.”
“I am certain you will, my lord,” Morgan answered, keeping his voice level. “I worry more for my control than for yours.”
A wistful smile touched Colbourne’s lips. “Your iron will? It will never waver, regardless of my desires.” The smile vanished. “Nonetheless, we will bury this poor child before we begin, Holland. I owe her that much, at least.”