Bookrak Award: Bestselling Regency 1995-1996
Romantic Times: Nominated, Reviewer's Choice Award, Best Fantasy Regency Romance 1995
America Online's Romance Reader's Board, Best Regency, 1995
Being a vampire is okay--you get to stay up all night, women find you irresistable, you're strong, fast, and magic is yours for the taking. But Nicholas, Viscount St. Vire finds all of that means little in the face of impending insanity and the eventual deterioration of his senses. Only the the willing embrace of a virginal young woman can reverse his condition.
Who better for his wife-to-be than the impoverished Leonore Farleigh, whose abusive father sells her to St. Vire to pay off gaming debts? Leonore agrees to marry him--how else is she going to save her sister and her mother from their poverty and pain? But she soon finds she's stepped into a marriage of inconvenience… and possible death.
The air was cool outside, and Leonore shivered slightly at the first brush of a breeze. She felt a light caress upon her arms; it was St. Vire drawing her shawl about her shoulders. He smiled down at her, then took her hand and placed it upon his arm. The noise and music of the ballroom faded behind them as they walked a little upon the terrace. They said nothing for a while, but there was no awkwardness between them. It was as if St. Vire was content to be silent, demanding nothing from her. They came to the low stone wall that separated the terrace from the gardens below, and he drew her to it.
She gazed at him, seeing how the moonlight outlined each of his features precisely so that his pale profile seemed etched upon the darkness of the sky. The night suited him, she thought, for night was full of contrasts, when all things seen were either black or white. He, also, was full of contrasts; at once kind and vain, generous while he protested he was wholly selfish.
He leaned against the stone wall, looking over it to the gardens. He breathed in deeply, and an odd expression, a mix of longing and frustration, crossed his features. He breathed out again in a quick rush of air.
"Is there something the matter, Nicholas?" She moved toward him, and touched his sleeve.
He turned and smiled at her. "No. I was merely thinking it has been a long time since I have been in a garden."
A sudden sadness and strange warmth curled around Leonore's heart. Of course it would be unlikely he'd venture into a garden. It was a thing best seen during the day, and Nicholas could only come out at night. He could not see the open faces of flowers, or breathe in the full perfume that scented the air only during the day. Their colors would be varied shades of grey under the moon, and never the rich panoply of hues that would show so clearly under the sun. A wild impulse moved her to tug at his arm.
"Come," she said, and pulled him away from the terrace wall.
St. Vire's smile turned quizzical, but he followed nevertheless. He watched her step quick and light upon the terrace steps to the garden.
Moonbeams touched her form, and her dress shimmered as she walked, clinging and releasing, hinting at feminine curves beneath. Only the faint strains of music reached his ears now instead of the murmur of voices and instruments combined. His feet soon touched earth instead of stone, and his legs brushed low shrubbery.
His eyebrows rose. He had not expected this, that Leonore would bring him here to the garden. He had thought her somewhat staid, for she had been all that was proper with him, never giving into any impulse. But now they were in the middle of the garden, the moon illuminated the clearing, and roses surrounded them. Their scent was not strong, or rather, he could barely smell them. But then an abrupt, sharp fragrance filled his nostrils, for Leonore had plucked a rose and brushed his cheek with it.
"I will give you this," she said, and she gazed intently into his eyes. "You have given me and my sister much, and I do not know how to return it. But when we are wed, I will give you roses, fill the house with them, and you will see their color even in the night."
Nicholas's breath left him suddenly as he looked into her eyes. They were no longer wary, but looked upon him with trust and even warmth. The light from the waxing moon shone upon her elfin face and silvered her blonde hair, and the silk of her dress as she breathed shimmered upon her breasts like water. He had dreamed this today, of Leonore and the moonlight, fairy-like and unreal. Even the scent of roses had come sharply to him, as it had in his dreams, as they never had since his change into a vampire. He took her hand, and then reached up and gently touched her cheek with his finger.
"Dance with me," he said.
She said nothing, but put her hand in his. The faint, lilting sounds of a waltz reached them from the ballroom. Slowly they moved and began to dance.
This time there was no proper distance between them, for he could feel the brush of her legs against his own through her skirts. He drew her close to him, sliding his hand from her waist to her hip, and she did not pull away. Instead, she looked at him, saying nothing, as if her whole concentration was upon him, trying to penetrate to his soul. Her head tipped back to look at him, exposing the long column of her throat.
The bloodlust caught him, almost making him gasp.
No. Not now, and not Leonore. His life would sink further into unreality if he gave into it now. He shuddered, and the thirst receded.
"What is wrong, Nicholas?" Leonore asked. The distant music from the ballroom faded, and their steps slowed then stopped.
"A chill." He gazed at her, at her eyes and lips sculpted by the light of the moon and the shadows of the dark. Her body was still pressed against him, her legs almost entwined with his through her gown's thin silk cloth. A different sort of lust overtook him. He bent his head, and his lips seized hers in a fierce kiss.
At first Leonore froze. Then his kiss softened, and she moved into his embrace. It was proper, he was her betrothed, she told herself, and then all rationality fled. No one had ever held her so close, and the closeness was suddenly a thing to be cherished. For all that it was foreign, it was also rare, and a hunger rose in her for it.
He must have sipped Lady Bennington's champagne before dancing with her, for his lips tasted of wine. Beneath the scent of bay rum was a wilder tang, like a forest in autumn, and it mixed with the scent of the roses and the night. She moved her hands to his shoulders, and her hand came up behind his neck to touch the thick curls at the nape. His hair was soft, and flowed between her fingers like silk.
"Nicholas..." she murmured against his lips, wanting to hear the sound of the name she'd said over and over again in her mind, but hadn't willingly allowed herself to say.
In answer, his lips came down upon hers again in a deeper kiss. His hands caressed her hips, pressing her hard against him. Heat flared there, and Leonore trembled and sighed a low moan. His mouth moved across her cheek, to where her hair curled around her ear.
"God, Leonore, how I want you...." His whisper ended in a husky laugh, and his kisses trickled just below her ear down to her shoulder. He hesitated at her neck, and his tongue flickered out briefly to touch her there, before his lips descended further.
Her skin tasted sweet and salt to his tongue, and the agony of denying himself more than this taste transmuted into hot desire. He wanted to pull Leonore down to the grass and take her there, but he could not if he were to save himself from madness, and he groaned in frustration. It was madness itself, his desire for her: an amalgam of bloodlust and the abrupt hyperacuity the thirst always brought to him. Now he could feel her breasts and thighs against him as if her silk dress and his own clothes were nothing but mist. The heady scent of roses and lavender water made him dizzy, the music of her sighs seized his heart and made him want to weep. It was ten times the agony, for he knew once the thirst faded, he'd sink into the mind-killing dullness of the senses again.
One more taste of her, he thought, once more before I stop. He pushed aside the gathers of fine silk crepe that covered her breasts, and kissed the revealed skin. Her breath came fast, and her hands clutched his shoulders tightly.
"Nicholas...I don't...I want...." Her voice came out in a breathless sob.
He turned his face so that his cheek rested on her breast, and taking a deep breath, briefly closed his eyes. He pushed himself away from her, and though he tried to keep his hands steady, they trembled as he gently pulled up her bodice again. He did not want to look at her face, for he felt perhaps she would see his shame at his lack of control. The shame surprised him, for he had not felt it with other women, women whom he had seduced in the past. It was, no doubt, because he had not had to control himself with them, and anything that he took from them was amply paid for in coin or sensual pleasure.
"Nicholas...." He felt her warm fingers touch his cheek, the sensation already dulled, for the bloodlust had faded. It was as if a transparent cloth had formed itself about his body, and muffled all his senses. He looked down into her eyes at last. A light dwelt within, and her mouth smiled, still soft with passion.
"Kiss me again," she said.