Read An Excerpt From The Wages of Sin….
When I was sixteen I had fancied myself in love with one of the footmen, a horrible clich, I know. He had quite properly not returned my affections and I had been despondent. Late one morning as I lay in bed nursing my broken heart, my mother had knocked lightly and entered.
“Dulcie, dear” she had said to me, “the world does not stop for one broken heart. Life goes on and you must go on with it. There are people in this world, sick and dying people, who would give anything for one more day to be whole and well and walk in the sunshine or read under a tree or pick wildflowers in a meadow. I know you’re hurting but you can be just as broken-hearted while doing something productive with your day, and you never know, perhaps at the end of it you’ll feel better. At least it’ll give you something to occupy your mind besides brooding over what will never be. Now, it’s obvious you need some direction so I’ll give you an hour to get yourself out of that bed and get packed. You and I are going to London for a few weeks. I think it’s just what you need. All those marvelous shops on Bond Street have a miraculous way of lifting a woman’s spirits, don’t you think?”
It had been the stray thought of that day which had gotten me up. I may be hurting but I was being disrespectful of my parents’ memory by lying around like a slugabed and accomplishing nothing. Mama would be horrified at my behavior. Since the sun had already set and I’d seen quite enough of the inside of the house for one day, I thought I would walk down to the stables and check on John and the boys.
I called for Fiona as I walked down the hall to my room. Once there I opened my wardrobe and frowned. I hadn’t yet taken the time to go to my modiste in London to be fitted for mourning clothes but I needed to go soon, desperately. I had absolutely nothing appropriate to wear. No one in my immediate family had died since I had lost both of my grandmothers and Uncle William, my father’s younger brother, when I was a child.
I had one mourning dress of my own, a dove gray silk with black lace overlay, which I wore to funerals of acquaintances and family friends but that wouldn’t be acceptable for me to wear until I was in half-mourning. The black bombazine and paramatta silk which I had worn to my parents’ funeral had been my mother’s. It had been tucked away in a trunk since her mourning period had ended for my grandmother. Mrs. Mackenzie had altered it for me so that I could wear it to the funeral. I’d had a slight mishap with the dress afterwards, in fact I still cringed at the thought, and it was no longer wearable. The only other garment I had in black, other than my cloak, was my riding habit.
I sighed and ran my hands over the dresses in my wardrobe. I had several dresses that were in acceptable colors for half-mourning and I supposed they would have to do for a few days until I could slip into London and visit Madame Rousseau’s shop. There were two lovely afternoon dresses, one of lavender muslin and another of white muslin with lavender flowers and trim. There was a dark mauve evening dress which I’d bought against my better judgment and had never worn. The modiste had said it would compliment my coloring but the more I tried it on when I got it home, the more I thought it was simply horrid. I couldn’t bear to put it on again so I pulled the lavender muslin out instead. It was a day dress but if I threw my cloak over it no one would know.
As soon as Fiona had laced my short corset and buttoned my dress I descended the stairs and crossed the foyer, mentally planning the best time to drive into London to visit Madame Rousseau’s. Just as I reached for the knob at the front door, a knock sounded from the other side. I jerked my hand back, startled, and stared at the door.
My first instinct was to look around for Masterson, but of course he wasn’t there. Mrs. Mackenzie was in the kitchen preparing supper and Fiona had gone down the back stairs to join her. I was all alone. Well, there was no help for it; I would have to answer the door myself, though I couldnt for the life of me think who might be on the other side. All the neighbors had already paid their respects at the funeral. Everyone except…
I opened the door to find Lord Sebastian Montford on my doorstep. He looked immaculate as always, his clothing finely tailored, his shiny black curls artfully disheveled, the nails on his long, slender fingers buffed to a shine, his face very pale and proper and English. I cursed under my breath and then smiled sweetly.
“Lord Montford,” I said, “how kind of you to come.”
He bowed regally over my outstretched hand. “Dulcinea, we’ve known each other since we were infants; I think you can call me Sebastian while were in private. Forgive me for the lateness of the hour but I’ve just returned home and heard the terrible news about your parents.”
“Of course. I thought you’d returned from Yorkshire last week though?”
“Ah, well, I had but I was ill for a time and didn’t want to come pay my respects until I was fully recovered.” He paused and looked at me expectantly. “Er, may I come in?”
Drat. “Actually, Ive been cooped up in the house for days and was just about to take a stroll down to the stables before supper. Would you care to join me?”
He looked momentarily annoyed, which I thought was rather odd, and then he smiled and offered his arm to me. “I’d be delighted.”
I didn’t see a carriage in the drive but perhaps Sebastians driver had pulled it around to the stables. We walked around the side of the house. There was plenty of light since Mrs. Mackenzie had just taken supper to John and the stable boys and Tim had lit the lanterns between the kitchen door and the stables for her.
“Dulcinea, I wonder if you’ve had time to give any thought to what you’ll do now?”
“Well, you’re a young woman on your own without anyone to guide you.”
It was rather annoying that anyone would think I needed guidance. I was not exactly a green girl just out of the schoolroom.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sure that it comes as no surprise to you that I have feelings for you.”
“And I count you as one of my very best friends, Sebastian,” I lied, patting his hand where it rested atop mine on his sleeve, hoping that would forestall wherever this conversation was going. Sebastian and I had been friends as children but it had been many, many years since I’d thought of him in those terms.
“Yes, well, my feelings for you go rather more deeply than that,” he took a deep breath, drew himself up and turned to face me. “I want to marry you, Dulcinea.”
He continued, “It isn’t right that you’re here in this big house all alone, with no family.”
“Sebastian, I’m in mourning. I cant possibly even consider marriage for at least a year.”
“We can say that your parents had given their consent before their deaths. We can be married in a private ceremony here and live quietly until your year of mourning is over. Even the grande dames of the ton cannot find fault with that. It’s entirely more fitting than you living here alone.”
Oh, double damn. Did the man have an answer for everything? He had clearly thought this out.
“Sebastian, I appreciate your offer, truly I do, but there’s nothing improper about my living here. It is my house now and I have Mrs. Mackenzie with me.”
He scoffed. “A housekeeper is hardly a proper chaperone.”
“Perhaps not but she was my nanny when I was a child, not to mention she is my mother’s cousin. She’s hardly a servant. And my cousin Thomas and his family are less than a day’s travel to London. It’s not as if I’m stuck out in the back of beyond with only a parlor maid in residence.”
He stepped closer, taking my shoulders in his hands. I didn’t like that by half.
“We would be good together, Dulcinea.”
“Sebastian, I’m flattered by your offer but the matter is closed.”
He gave me a small shake and his fingers clenched. “Think of what your parents would want for you, then. They would want you to be settled with a proper husband.”
“Actually, Sebastian, the last thing my parents told me was to stay away from you! Now take your hands off me.”
He sighed and narrowed his eyes. “That’s the way its to be then?”
He released me and I rubbed my arms, sure there would be bruises there tomorrow. Really, what had gotten into the man?
“Well, that’s a pity then. I’d wanted to do this the easy way,” his right hand shot out like lightening, so fast I could barely see it, reaching across his body and grabbing my right arm, spinning me around until my back was pressed against him. “But I dont mind doing it the hard way if necessary.”
I struggled but he was strong, far stronger than he should have been. “Sebastian, turn me loose or I’ll scream.”
His voice was soft and deadly calm in my ear, “Go ahead and scream, my dear. Call them all out here. I’ll kill them all, your precious Mrs. Mackenzie, Fiona, that impudent stable boy, all of them.”
I stopped struggling. There was something in his voice, something new and frightening. A week ago I’d have laughed at such a statement but now I was afraid. Afraid he’d actually do it.
“That’s my girl. Now dont worry,” he said, unhooking the clasp at my neck and pushing my cloak down over one shoulder, “this wont hurt. Much.”
His breath was behind my ear as he spoke, and then moved lower. His teeth grazed the throbbing pulse at my neck and there was a sharp, white-hot pain as he sank his teeth into my skin. Vampire, some age-old instinct in my brain shouted. I saw it all as if I were watching from somewhere outside my body. I couldn’t move, couldnt scream or hed kill everyone I loved. All I could do was watch.
I watched his dark head bent to my neck. I watched his hand, engulfing mine, pressed against my breast. I watched a small trail of blood run down my white skin and seep into the lace at the neckline of my dress, watched my eyes flutter shut… and something snapped inside me. This was not going to happen. I would, by the Goddess, not allow it.
Reaching up with my free hand, I raked my nails down his face. He hissed, his grip slackening just enough for me to strike backward, hitting him in the throat with my elbow. He turned me loose, one hand reaching up to clutch his throat and then he came at me again. Stop, stop, stop, I thought as I stumbled backward. Raising my hands I called my power and pushed it outward through my palms. As it had in the Winter Garden a week ago, my magic flew free, surrounding Sebastian and holding him. He looked down at his feet, puzzled.
I ran. What I’d just done wasnt a spell, it wasnt any type of magic I’d ever been taught. I’d called it forth from pure emotion and I had no idea how long it would hold him. I had to make it to the kitchen door.
I saw Tim coming up from the stables with the dishes from supper. He saw me running and stopped on the trail. Looking over my shoulder I saw Sebastian struggling. It looked like he was making progress.
“Run!” I screamed to Tim, pointing to the kitchen door. “Run!”
There must have been something in my voice because Tim dropped the plates and bowls and sprinted for the door. I could hear my heels on the stone flags of the garden path, could feel my heart beating frantically. My neck was on fire and I was dimly aware that I was covered in blood. Maybe it had been the blood Tim reacted to. Just as the boy reached the door I felt Sebastian break free of my magic. I didn’t need to look back; I could feel him coming. A howl of rage sounded behind me and the wind picked up, scattering the leaves and blowing dust from the path up into my face.
Tim had pushed the door open and was standing there, frozen in fear on the threshold. I didnt slow my pace but put my hands on him and shoved him through the door in front of me. I could almost feel Sebastians breath on the back of my neck as Tim and I fell through the open doorway and sprawled in an inelegant heap on the stone floor. I heard female screams above my head, Mrs. Mackenzie and Fiona. Rolling quickly onto my back, I looked up at the doorway, ready to do battle.
Sebastian stood there glaring at me, his fists clenched at his sides, his canine teeth long and wicked sharp. Yet he made no move to cross the threshold. I laughed up at him, faking a bravado I didnt come close to feeling.
“Vampire,” I laughed, my voice sounding a little hysterical, even to my own ears. “You can’t come in unless I invite you.”
The gleaming white teeth retracted to a normal length as Sebastian seemed to gather his composure.
“Yes, well, I was invited in when I was human. I was hoping that would be enough, but no matter,” he said, withdrawing a clean white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbing at the blood, my blood, at the corner of his mouth. “You’ll have to come out sooner or later, my dear. I can’t touch you while the sun shines but darkness is now my stalking ground. Eventually you will come out after dark, you or one of the others,” he said glancing at Tim and the ladies as he neatly folded the handkerchief and returned it to his pocket. “After all, I have nothing but time. I can be patient.”
My temper flared at the thought that he would harm one of the others to get to me. Hed come back from Eton a mean-spirited bully and the intervening years apparently hadn’t corrected that flaw.
“You’re nothing but a weasel, Sebastian!” I yelled. “That’s all youve ever been and all you will ever be!”
His form shimmered iridescent gold. He looked down at his hands.
“What the-?” he said and then he was gone. On the flagstones outside the kitchen door now sat a very large, very angry weasel.
“Oops,” I squeaked.
“Dulcie, what have you done?” Fiona asked in a breathy whisper. She looked like a younger version of her mother with the same chestnut hair and heart-shaped face, a face that now stared at the snarling weasel in fascination and horror.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s the magic; I can’t seem to control it. The day after the funeral I was in my room, crying and tidying up, and I wished that I could burn that horrid black dress and the thing went up in flames all by itself.”
Mentally shaking myself I leapt up and grabbed a stick of wood from the pile near the ovens. Wrapping what was possibly a small tablecloth around it and tying it tightly, I lit it from the fire.
“Tim, take this now and go back to the stables.”
Tim was standing now, staring in horror at Sebastian the weasel. I grabbed his arm and shook him gently. “Tim, listen to me.”
He flinched and looked at me wide-eyed.
“Don’t,” I said, my voice cracking on the word, “don’t look at me like that. You know me. You know I’d never hurt you.”
His face turned red. “No, miss. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“It’s all right. Now listen carefully. Is Lord Montfords carriage and driver in the stable?”
“No miss, I assumed it was in the drive.”
“Good. Now, don’t tell the others what youve seen here. Go back to the stables and bar all the doors. Do not open them until sunrise, not for anything or anyone, can you do that?”
“Good lad,” I said, handing him the makeshift torch. “Come back up to the house in the morning, well after sunrise mind you, and we’ll talk about whats to be done.”
“But miss, I can’t leave you and the ladies here unprotected!”
“We’ll be fine. He can’t come in unless we invite him and we certainly aren’t going to do that. Now, go quickly!”
Tim moved to the doorway. Sebastian the weasel hissed and snapped at him. Tim thrust the torch at the little fiend and he backed away, allowing Tim to move past and head down the stable path. I watched from the window to make sure that he got there safely.
“Dulcie?” Mrs. Mackenzie said, gesturing toward the weasel. “How did you do that?”
“Like I said, I don’t know,” I sighed. “The Awakening didn’t happen like it was supposed to. It’s too much all at one time and I can’t seem to control it.”
The three of us stood in a semi-circle in front of the open door, staring. Sebastian the weasel paced back and forth, looking at us, at me in particular, and spitting as he paced.
“Do you think you should… de-weasel him, Dulcie?” Fiona said in a small voice.
I shrugged and turned to her. “I don’t know how I weaseled him in the first place,” I said. “I truly don’t even know how I’d go about de-weaseling him. I suppose I could look through Mama’s books, perhaps theres a spell of some sort.”
“Then again,” Mrs. Mackenzie said. “Do we really want to change him back? I mean, being as how it appears that Lord Montford is now a vampire and wishes to kill you, wouldn’t it be best to just leave him?”
“Frankly, Mrs. Mac, I couldn’t give a badger’s ass if Sebastian stays weaseled or not, but you know as well as I do that the first rule of magic is to harm none. I think turning someone into a weasel would be considered doing harm,” I pointed out.
“I don’t really think that the harm none rule applies to the undead, do you?” Fiona asked. “I mean, they’re dead. Aren’t they pretty much as… harmed as they’re going to get?”
“Good point, my dear,” her mother said, patting her shoulder. “Besides, he was trying to harm you first and I think Lord Montford would make a fine weasel. Probably be very happy. And do watch your language, young lady.”
I rolled my eyes. “My unwanted suitor has gone evil, I’ve been attacked in my own garden, I have two holes in my neck, I’m covered in my own blood and there’s a snarling weasel on my doorstep. I think the situation calls for a little strong language.”
“If you ladies are quite through,” a deep male voice said from the doorway.
We all gasped and turned. Sebastian stood there, back in human form. Well, not exactly human, not anymore.
“I guess that’s settled, then,” I said. In truth I was a little disappointed.
“You think you’re so smart,” he spat. “You have no idea the power I have now, the things I can do to you now that I’ve tasted you.”
“You’ve had quite a taste of my own power,” I said, cocking my head to one side. “How did you like it?”
“Oh you’ll pay for that, never fear. I’ve wanted you for years, Dulcinea, and I will have you. We need you and no one can stop us now. Your blood is in me, flowing through me, and there is no chance of escape for you, not anymore. You’ll be hearing from me soon.”
And with that he was gone.