Now what to do? Where to go? Conrad's comments resounded within her as she moped through the hallways of her home.
At the week's end, the brothers were all going out and she... wasn't. N¨Ļomi had loved going to gatherings, had adored getting dressed up. She'd loved anything with a social aspect.
She recalled all the fun things she'd done - beach bonfires at the gulf, houseboat parties on the Mississippi, celebrating Mardi Gras with other bons vivants, lively and hedonistic stage people.
One Fourth of July, she'd splashed in the fountain in Jackson Square. Under the heat of fireworks above and surrounded by the soft strains of jazz, she'd kissed a complete stranger - his lips had tasted of absinthe.
I used to be proud, too, the life of the party. No longer. Now she wasn't above begging like a pathetic dog for a crumb of attention.
Her mood picked up a fraction when she heard a voice downstairs. Murdoch hadn't left yet. She traced to him, finding him dialing on his cellular phone. She decided to see if his pockets held any more of those lovely hair combs.
"Pick up, Danii," he muttered. When Danii didn't, he slammed his fist into a wall. If another Wroth punches my house one more time...
He was so preoccupied that he never felt a thing when she rooted through his pocket -
And fished out a key.
For hours, Conrad had wanted to call her back.
Something about her expression had put him on edge. She'd had a look on her face as if she'd been sentenced to the gallows - part fear, part resignation. Her eyes had been so sad, so different from her earlier excited demeanor, such as when she'd been asking about mermaids, of all things.
It wasn't her fault she'd overheard Conrad's shaming secret, but he'd treated her as if it were - because he was sick of feeling powerless and impotent, sick of being both. He was just about to swallow his pride and call for her when he smelled lit candles and... starch?
His hackles rose. Something was happening, something she'd known was awaiting her. All she'd wanted to do was stay with him during the day, because she'd been afraid. Of what?
And he'd cruelly sent her away to be on her own. A bewildering type of panic welled inside him, so strong it left him shaken. He began sweating.
N¨Ļomi should never be afraid. Not while he had strength in his body.
His eyes widened when he heard music downstairs. Not right. This isn't right. He grew frenzied, rocking back and forth, yanking against his chains, leveraging all his strength against one arm. Again and again, he heaved... until he dislocated his shoulder with a pop.
This gave him just enough leeway to thread his hands under his feet and unlatch the tether from the bed. He stood, pounding his shoulder into the doorframe to force it back in place, then charged downstairs. Searching for the scent of roses, he came to the ballroom.
This area had been wrecked by age - and by Conrad. Yet now it appeared as it must have been eighty years ago. The marble floor was an unbroken gleam under the light of what seemed like a thousand candles. The interior was filled with fresh-cut roses, starched tablecloths, and obviously expensive furniture. That ghostly music sounded from no apparent source.
Surreal. This situation had all the makings of a hallucination. But he didn't believe it was. Then he saw her enter the room, looking as though she were in a trance. "N¨Ļomi?" She didn't answer, just began to dance.
She started slowly, somehow keeping her chest, head, and arms perfectly still, while her leg unfolded and she pivoted round. When the pace quickened, she began to sweep her arms, the movements precise yet fluid.
The way she moved was like silk, as though her arms were boneless. Stunned, he muttered, "Tantsija."
Even he recognized certain steps from classical ballet, but she infused them with sensuality. There was something... suggestive about the way she danced, as if she did it to attract a man.
It was working. When she moved, he felt.
N¨Ļomi appeared spectral at certain angles. But he'd still never seen anything so beautiful. Her skin was glowing, her pale lips like a bow. The smoky outlines around her eyes just made the blue irises stand out. Her cheeks only seemed sharper because of the shadows under them.
Her face was suffused with contentment, what looked like a nearly mindless joy. He was calmed watching her, his earlier frustrations soothed. Others' memories couldn't overcome his captivation with what he was seeing. They grew quieter with each second, and then, for the first time in centuries, they receded altogether.
A dead dancer with joy on her face made him feel... expectation. He had a sense of looking forward to something more with her - to watching her dance again, to talking with her.
Before, he'd been accepting of the fact that he would die soon, had believed he deserved it. He was a vampire, a being he'd been taught to hate all his life.
Now... he wasn't at all ready for the end. As he watched her, he thought, I might not be able to miss out on her.
He narrowed his eyes. I want... the dancer.
In the shower with her, he'd recognized she was special to him in some way. This evening the suspicion that she was his Bride had grown. Now he no longer denied it. She must not have blooded him because she wasn't technically alive.
To have such a woman in his keeping...
For a chance with her, could he put away his plans for revenge - and his certainty that he would soon die?
She effortlessly twirled up on her toes, her black skirts and her long hair whipping around. So lovely his chest ached.
Yes, he could. She's mine. And I'll have her. There were obstacles, but he excelled at eliminating anything that stood in the way of what he wanted.
Soon her pace increased. She spun faster and faster. Not right. Outside, yellow lightning began to flash in front of the crescent moon, and the wind soon roared through the trees, raining leaves. The room slowly aged, decaying right before him. The music abruptly ended.
Rose petals littered the floor.
Conrad charged for her, unable to trace because of the chains. Before he could reach her, the pace quickened even more. "N¨Ļomi?"
The air grew heavier. Her expression changed, going from dreamy and seductive to terrified.
Once he reached her, he yelled, "N¨Ļomi, stop this!"
She didn't glance up, didn't seem able to. Her eyes were stark, her breaths ragged. When he tried to stay her, she passed right through him, making him shudder from a surge of electricity.
Every protective instinct in him screamed to life. Keep her safe... keep her close.
He couldn't. He roared with frustration when she moved through him again.
How long could she sustain this pace? Faster, twirling away from him, until... she vanished.
Turning in a slow circle, he bellowed, "N¨Ļomi!" But the sounds continued, sounds that he didn't want to identify: the wet scraping of bone; her scream - interrupted. Suddenly blood pooled out over the floor, soaking the petals.
Until they, too, disappeared.
He'd seen it. Somehow the vampire had gotten free.
When Conrad had begun yelling for her from all over the house, she'd evacuated from her studio to the bayou folly.
She planned to sleep out here, away from all the commotion. The crickets and owls were lulling, and a breeze blew. She couldn't feel it, but the cypress needles above her combed the wind, the sound sublime. She was just about to fall into reverie when he came upon her.
He stopped in his tracks, and his eyes briefly slid shut.
"What do you want?" N¨Ļomi murmured.
He wound around jutting cypress knees to reach her. "Are you injured?" he asked, crouching beside her, surveying her.
As much as she hated to admit it, his presence was comforting. "Don't be ridiculous, vampire. I can't be injured." Yet her essence was depleted - it always was. And she was shaken from the relived pain. Being stabbed in the heart tended to do that to a person.
Much less when the knife twists... She shuddered. How much longer can I continue to endure this?
"What the hell was that back there?" When she shurgged, he said, "You're even paler than before, fainter."
"Am I to expect more insults, Conrad? You should know that I'm not one of those women who will take disdain over nothing." Had she sounded as if she was trying to convince herself? "I'd rather not converse with you."
"I don't want to insult you." He couldn't take his gaze from her, as if fearing she'd disappear again.
"You didn't want to be around me earlier. Perhaps now I don't want your company."
He studied her face. "I think... I think that you do."
"Cocky now? Le d¨Ļment reveals a brand-new personality." She didn't like that he was right, or that he knew he was right. Maybe she was as pathetic as he'd deemed her. "How did you get loose?"
"Pulled my shoulder out," he said, his tone indicating this wasn't even worth a mention.
She quirked a brow. Intense man. "Naturellement."
"Come inside with me."
"You're ready to let the lapdog inside? And here I didn't even beg at the door. Why do you even care what happens with me?"
"I just... do. So return with me," he said. She could tell he wanted to snatch her arm and drag her in. "Dawn's coming."
She feigned tapping her chin. "Hmm, I never would have suspected if not for that big orange ball rising."
"If you won't come inside, then I have no choice but to stay with you here."
"What about the sun? Are you crazed - strike that. Are you a fool?"
"Tell me what happened tonight or come inside. One of the two."
"Allez au diable."
"Then I'm staying with you." He sank beside her, flaunting that stubborn mien.
"Then I'll leave."
"And go where?" he asked. "Is this where you usually go when you're not with me?"
"No, I'm out here because you wouldn't stop shouting in my house!" she snapped, at the end of her patience. "I don't know why this happens. At the same time every month, I dance. I can't stop it, can't control it. And then once I've danced my heart out, I get to have it stabbed. Month after month."
"You said you were alone here."
"I am. I don't see Louis. I don't see the knife. I just can... I just feel it."
"I've heard of ghosts compelled to reenact certain aspects of their deaths."
"Well, now that I know I'm not alone in this, it's all better. You may go now. Adieu."
If N¨Ļomi had previously appeared breezy and confident, now she looked like a shaken girl, off by herself to lick her wounds.
But Conrad had believed what he'd said earlier. She wanted him near - even if she was prickly with him. Of course she'd still be angry with him about earlier, but he also thought she was upset that he'd seen that dance. He figured women were like that - whenever they showed a bit of vulnerability, they came out with claws bared.
"Come with me, N¨Ļomi."
Her delicate hand rose to her forehead. She seemed drained, her image flickering, her eyes weary and not as luminous.
The changes in the house, the music, and all of those ghostly surroundings had to have been fueled by her, by her very essence.
"Why should I?"
Because he needed to keep her close. Because what he'd just witnessed had done something to him. He was altered. This was more than his determination that she was his. It was more than his resolve to do something about it and more than his new need to protect her.
He felt as if some foreign emotion had wedged itself inside his chest, and now it was swinging punches, demanding more room.
But he only said, "Why not?"
She was obviously so tired, but she still jutted her dainty chin up. "You feel sorry for me now. You don't have to babysit me. I assure you that I've gotten through this by myself before."
"I know you have." Each month for eighty years, she'd relived her death - alone. Never again. "You would come inside for no other reason than to save me from incineration. Because, tantsija, I can be as stubborn as you."
"What does that word mean?"
"It means dancer."
As tendrils of sunlight began to reach them, she pursed her lips. "Oh, very well." She floated to her feet, then accompanied him back to the house.
Though she grumbled, he was able to lead her into his room. She was likely too tired to resist. Inside, she drifted straight to the bed, then curled on her side, hovering just above the mattress.
Earlier, he'd noticed that she floated over chairs as though sitting. Now he knew she slept on beds as well.
In seconds, she was asleep... .
During the long day as he watched over her, her image grew stronger, which satisfied him more than anything in recent memory.
He experienced needs unknown before, inexplicable urges... . He wanted to lie behind her. Wanted to tuck her small body into him. Again and again, he ran his hands over the outline of her hair, imagining what the glossy curls would feel like.
He had the overwhelming urge to buy this place, fix it, and keep her safe within it - but only if he could prevent her from having to dance as she had last night. His hands clenched as he thought of her, cursed to feel that pain over and over.
Conrad had the knowledge necessary to do some spells - mostly crude protection or camouflaging spells - but could rarely access it on demand. Whenever he wanted a certain memory, it proved infuriatingly elusive. If he was able to utilize at will all the knowledge he'd acquired, could he figure out how to protect her?
What if the answer was there, already within him, waiting to be retrieved? Nikolai had said Conrad could learn to do it.
He'd also said that there was only one thing that could compete with bloodlust - sex. And that there was only one thing that could compete with the overwhelming need to kill.
Now Conrad knew. The need to protect.
By dint of will, effort, and a rake he'd found in a ramshackle toolshed, Conrad had retrieved several of the newspapers on the drive that she'd been unable to reach. He intended to make a gift of them to his female.
Having no experience whatsoever with women and limited resources, this was the best he could come up with.
He'd just finished stacking up the papers in the room and settled in to wait for N¨Ļomi to wake when his brothers traced into the room.
Nikolai exhaled wearily to find him moving about freely. "How did you get loose?"
"Dislocated my shoulder."
Almost at the exact same time, all three raised their brows at the collection of papers. "You dislocated your shoulder to get to the newspapers on the road? You could have asked one of us if you wanted to read - "
"No. That's not it." Why not tell them? They already thought him mad. What if one of them has encountered a ghost? What if they believed him? "I got them for a female who lives here." He was sane enough to recognize how this sounded. "She likes to read them."
"The house is abandoned, Conrad." Nikolai pinched the bridge of his nose. "You know this."
He ran his palms over his pants. "I'm the only one who can see her. She's lying on this bed right now."
To a man, they got that anxious expression as though they were wondering whether madness was catching.
"If there is truly a ghost there, get her to move something," Murdoch said. "Can she make a door slam? Or rattle something in the attic?"
"Yes, she can move things with her mind."
Sebastian waved him on. "Then by all means... "
Conrad glanced from them to her, and back again. "She's... asleep." And he couldn't shake her to get her to wake.
"Of course she is," Sebastian muttered. He'd always been the most skeptical of the brothers. Conrad figured that even after three centuries, that hadn't changed.
"Damn it, I'm telling the truth."
"Yet you can't rouse her?"
Conrad considered explaining why she was so exhausted, but thought that would only make things worse.
Murdoch asked, "Why would we believe you're seeing a ghost rather than another hallucination? You're supposed to be bombarded with delusions."
"I was. Constantly. I'm not anymore. She's real." Right at her ear, he said, "N¨Ļomi, wake up!" No response. "Wake up!" he said louder, aware that he appeared to be yelling at the sheet.
Murdoch had a look on his face as if he couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry over Conrad's actions. Finally, he said, "Kristoff has given word that there will be a battle tonight. So we likely won't be returning for two days."
Nikolai added, "We'll leave you free run of the property. The refrigerator is filled with weeks' worth of bagged blood, and I'll get my wife to stop - "
"I'll manage on my own," Conrad said quickly.
Surprised by the concession, Conrad said, "Free me completely."
Nikolai's gaze went from the newspapers to Conrad's eyes, and he exhaled. "We can't. You've come too far to relapse. Soon I'm going to ask you to make a decision. A critical one - but you have to be stable."
Conrad gave a bitter laugh. "Since when do you ask me to make a decision instead of making it for me?"
Nikolai's expression was grave. "Since I lost my brother for three centuries."
"Are you a betting man, Conrad?" N¨Ļomi was surprised her voice wasn't quavering.
He'd shaved, fully revealing the striking structure of his lean face. And she'd been given no warning. She'd breezed into the room, then stopped, speechless at the sight of him reclining on the bed.
Devastating male. And she wondered why she couldn't stay mad at him.
He frowned at her reaction. He obviously had no idea of his heart-pounding effect on women. "Depends."
Yesterday, once she'd awakened from her lengthy reverie, she'd found a stack of newspapers lying on the floor. He'd gruffly said, "I was able to get some of the ones that had piled up out of your reach." She thought that for a man like Conrad, this had been on a level with picking flowers for her.
Though the gesture had softened her, she'd still been hesitant when he'd wanted to stay close by. "Why should I choose to be around you?" she'd asked. "You're just going to hurt my feelings or start haranguing me for the key again." The key that she'd stolen from Murdoch and hidden away.
"My brothers were here earlier," Conrad had answered. "They said they aren't returning for two days. There will be a moratorium on the key. And I won't insult you."
Apparently, his brothers had allowed him to remain untied from the bed, with his manacles in front - even after he'd disclosed that there was a ghost living here.
The idea that he'd had to tell them that he would have gotten the spirit to prove herself, but she was asleep, was too amusing. The image of him yelling at seemingly nothing but a sheet was hilarious.
She'd decided to give him another chance. Which was why she held a deck of cards this evening. "I challenge you to twenty-one rounds of vingt-et-un. Whoever loses a round has to answer a question, truthfully and completely. Any question whatsoever."
He sat up. "Deal."
She hovered on the foot of the bed to face him. He had difficulty with the cards because his hands were still chained, but he wouldn't ask for help. And she had to use her most highly concentrated telekinesis, which would mean she'd have to sleep more. But still they muddled through.
After he won the first hand, his lips curved, not quite a smile, but she still had to shake herself. "I win."
Yes, you do... . In the game of attraction, lips like his should be ruled an unfair advantage.
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