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Checkmate

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Checkmate
By PJ
February 2020

Natalie followed the coastal road east, hoping to come across any signs that would direct her towards a major highway. Instead she found herself in the port area of Nice where a huge ferry was loading. On impulse she lined up with the other cars.

“Excuse me, where is this ferry going?” she asked the agent in the ticket booth.

“Bastia, madame,” the agent replied. “Corsica’s largest port.”

An island in the Mediterranean Sea seemed far enough away to allow her to get her thoughts in order, Natalie concluded. She paid the fee and proceeded over a ramp onto the ferry.

* * * *

Five hours later she rolled with the other cars from the ferry having no clue where to go. The sun had set during the passage. Natalie followed the signs to the Tourist Information only to find it closed at this hour. Slightly frustrated she turned around and noticed a neon sign advertising the Hotel Riviera. Natalie left her car in the public car park, fetched her suitcase and headed towards the building. It turned out to be a simple 2-star hotel, surely not the kind of accommodation Lacroix would favour. However, they had a room for her and she was too exhausted to care.

As she entered the bathroom to take a shower, she stopped short at her reflection in the mirror. Her face was reddened from severe sunburn. “Should have used sunscreen on the ferry,” she scolded herself. After taking off her clothes she examined the rest of her body. She was actually surprised to find it unblemished. Given her activities last night, she had expected bluish imprints from Lacroix’s hands on her skin. She blushed deeply as she recalled the way he had held her to give her pleasure. An expert’s touch indeed when he managed to handle her like that without leaving a mark. In fact the only evidence of their love-making was the bite marks on her neck.

Natalie shivered as she touched them and relived the incredible sensation of her blood being drained. Oh boy. None of her most erotic vampire movies gave justice to the ecstasy she had felt. Her mouth went dry and she gulped down a glass of water from the tap. She had indeed made love to a vampire and survived. And then she had run away like a scared child, overwhelmed by the impact of the encounter and the dangerous temptation to succumb to Lacroix’s offer.

He was the best lover she had ever had. What she was to him, she could only guess. Another conquest, as Nick had implied? A midnight snack? She did not expect him to love her. About that she had no illusions. Men like Lacroix were incapable of love. The way he had taken her from behind had been rather impersonal and consistent with his possessive nature. But, oh, it had been so wantonly satisfactory! Natalie closed her eyes and sighed in pleasure as she remembered how deeply he had filled her. It had been purely physical and devoid of emotion on his part. Of that she was certain.

But could she be satisfied with that? Would she be content with a purely physical relationship that lacked any emotional warmth? Natalie giggled as she imagined Lacroix’s face if she confronted him and complained that something was missing from his performance. He would probably kill her for the insult.

* * * *

When she stepped onto the balcony the next morning, the bright Mediterranean sun hurt her eyes. She quickly retreated and went downstairs into the breakfast room. Although she hadn’t eaten anything since they left for the ball over 36 hours ago, nothing from the breakfast buffet seemed appealing. She could only get down a few sips of coffee before her stomach rebelled. After gnawing on a piece of dry toast for a while she gave up and returned to her room where, overcome by nausea, she emptied what little she had eaten into the toilet. “What is wrong with me?” she asked herself. She doubted that it was a stomach bug, given that she felt fine otherwise. In order to get some fresh air, she went onto the balcony, this time taking sunglasses with her. After sitting five minutes in direct sunlight she stared in shock as her arms reddened before her eyes. Immediately she hurried back inside, her heart beating wildly as realization hit.

This couldn’t be. Was she changing as a result of Lacroix’s bite? Not fatal, but hazardous to health, he had said. In an effort to calm herself, she counted her pulse. It was a normal human 60 beats per minute. Her lack of appetite and apparent intolerance of food concerned her most. How long until she would experience the hunger for blood?

Aware that she needed advice, she searched in her purse for the number Nick had given her. He would probably be asleep but she gave it a try. After the second ring she heard Nick’s voice saying in French what Natalie determined was the equivalent to being either asleep or incommunicado. She would have to leave a message and hope he returned her call.

“Nick? It’s Natalie. I could really ––“

“Natalie?” a female voice interrupted Natalie’s message.

“Janette? Is that you?”

“Oui, where are you Natalie? Nicolas has been looking for you all over town.”

“I’m in Corsica. Something’s wrong. I cannot tolerate food and I burn in the sun. I’m scared, Janette! I’m not prepared to come across yet.” Natalie spoke rapidly into the receiver, realizing how true her words were. While she was considering coming across, she wanted to make the decision on her own instead of being forced into it.

“Calm down, Natalie and tell me what happened,” Janette said in a soothing voice. “Has Lacroix drained you?”

“He took about half a pint. I felt fine afterwards.”

Janette paused before replying. “Hm. And has he given you blood in return?”

“Um, not exactly. I never examined the contents of –– well, I did receive something. We –– we made love,” Natalie stuttered, her face a flaming red.

“Oh? Why did you leave? Was it not good?” Surprise was evident in Janette’s tone.

“It was fantastic,” Natalie blurted. “But I felt so overwhelmed afterwards. I needed to get away in order to sort out my feelings.”

“An act of self-preservation. I know that sentiment,” Janette sighed. “Écoute, Natalie. This is not how people are brought across. I’m quite sure your current predicament will pass.”

“Do you have any idea how long it will take? Should I just sleep it off like some sort of hang-over?”

“It might be a good idea if you returned to the city so that I can assess your situation more closely,” Janette advised.“Take the afternoon ferry. Nicolas will meet you at the port.”

“Alright,” Natalie acceded. “Thank you, Janette.”

“And don’t forget to bundle up,” Janette added before hanging up.

* * * *

Around 9 p.m. on the following evening Natalie arrived back in Nice. Janette hadn’t mentioned exactly where Nick would be waiting for her, so Natalie left the ferry in her car and followed the other vehicles along the port road. The progress was slow and while she waited for the cars in front of her to continue moving, there was a knock at her window. Relieved, she recognized Nick and unlocked the passenger door.

He took a seat, turned to her and pulled her into a tight embrace. Then he tensed and pulled back, brushing the hair from her neck. His face darkened as he saw the bite marks. “I’m going to kill him!” he seethed.

“Nick, no!” Natalie exclaimed. “Let’s don’t do anything rash, okay? I need to know what’s wrong with me and what I can do about it.”

A car horn honked behind them, causing Natalie to turn her attention back to the road where the traffic was now moving smoothly.

“Is he still at the hotel?” she asked.

“No, he left immediately for Montfaucon. He assumed you’d be heading there to retrieve your remaining luggage.”

Natalie was relieved that she didn’t have to face Lacroix tonight. Yet, she was astonished that he apparently thought she would leave. “So where do you want me to drive?”

Nick gave her directions that led them along the coast towards Cannes. As they ascended a hill, he directed her onto a side road that ended with a small car park next to a lovely villa overlooking the sea. Nick retrieved Natalie’s suitcase from the trunk and led her through a gate into a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to access the actual house.

Natalie stopped in her tracks as she regarded the open arches that allowed a beautiful view from the courtyard onto the sea. “This is absolutely gorgeous, Nick. And, I don’t know, but it looks familiar somehow. I’m sure I’ve seen this house before.”

Nick smiled at her. “I thought you would recognize it. It’s the house they used as Cary Grant’s villa in To Catch a Thief.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Natalie exclaimed. “How on earth did you get it?”

“It’s Janette’s. She kind of convinced Hitchcock to let her buy it after the movie was finished.”

Natalie stared at him. “She was here when they filmed the movie?”

“We all were.”

Natalie was impressed. “I want to hear all about that!”

Meanwhile Nick had led her into a beautifully decorated parlour where Janette joined them.

“Bon soir, Natalie. How are you feeling?” Janette asked, concerned.

“I’m worried. I haven’t eaten anything since this morning. And what little I managed to get down came up again soon afterwards.”

“Hmm. Apart from Lacroix’s signature, I can sense that you’re still quite mortal, Natalie. There should be no other side effects from your little adventure.”

Natalie refrained from looking at Nick at the mention of her activities with Lacroix and focused on Janette. “What about the sensitivity to the sun?”

“A passing consequence from receiving Lacroix’s blood, I assume. Écoute, Natalie, did you not experience these symptoms when he gave you his blood for the first time?”

“I don’t know. I was in the hospital then. I wasn’t exposed to sunlight for quite some time and I was being fed intravenously.”

“How could you let him feed from you, Nat?” Nick asked in an accusing tone.

“I had no idea it would come to that. You never told me what making love to a vampire involved,” Natalie responded, irritated.

“I never meant for you to make love to a vampire!”

“And who gave you permission to decide over my love life?” Natalie shot back.

“Your own common sense should tell you to keep your distance.”

Natalie frowned. “I tried, but I never felt such overwhelming desire before. It was impossible to resist.”

Nick and Janette exchanged a significant glance. “If he forced himself on you, I’ll kill him!” Nick declared.

“No, he didn’t. He actually gave me several opportunities to back out. I just didn’t use them. And I didn’t know he would bite.”

“Did he hurt you?” Nick asked gently.

Natalie shook her head. “He was surprisingly gentle. The bite hurt initially, but then ––“ Natalie trailed off, her mind lingering on the ecstasy she had felt.

Nick left abruptly and returned a moment later with a half empty bottle.

Janette reached for Natalie’s hand. “Natalie, I do not know how to tell you this. What you are experiencing is quite simple. Your body is reacting to Lacroix’s allure. You’ve probably seen it happen in movies.”

Natalie stared at her. “What do you mean?”

“When Lacroix first gave you some of his blood and took some of yours, he initiated a process that causes your body to react when he is not nearby, so that you go and seek him out.”

Natalie’s eyes widened. “You mean that void I felt in Toronto ––“

“–– was his way of calling you to him,” Nick finished.

“And my intolerance of food and sunlight?”

“I’m sure the intolerance of sunlight is merely a passing predicament that will resolve once his blood has passed through your system. The intolerance of food, however, may last until you go back to him,” Janette explained.

“But, I’m a resistor. Shouldn’t I be immune to these things?”

“I’ve never seen Lacroix having problems with resistors,” Janette shrugged. “What do you intend to do now?”

“I’ll head back to Montfaucon in order to test your theory,” Natalie decided immediately, unsettled by what she had learned.

“I’ll go with you,” Nick stated immediately. “He’ll regret that he ever touched you.”

“Nick, please,” Natalie entreated. “I cannot deal with this in a rational way when you keep reacting irrationally. I appreciate you backing me up, but I need to do this on my own. I need to find out what’s true and what’s an illusion without your influence, Nick.”

Nick let his head hang. “But be careful, Nat,” he conceded. “You know he’s dangerous.”

Natalie shrugged. “I know he won’t kill me since he has other plans for me. I just have no clue as to why me?”

Another significant glance passed between Nick and Janette; however, they remained silent.

* * * *

Natalie left after noon on the following day. On the drive she noticed that the sunlight didn’t bother her as much as it had on the previous days. That was a huge relief. Her stomach was another matter, though. She had managed a few sips of coffee and half a slice of toast before the nausea returned. There were still several hours of daylight remaining when she reached the castle.

After letting herself in, she was greeted by eerie silence. She wasn’t even sure if Lacroix was home at all. She went to her room, changed into a t-shirt and leggings and unpacked her suitcase. Around 5:00 p.m. she searched the parlour and adjacent rooms, but found no sign of Lacroix. Tentatively she entered the third floor and stopped in front of the door which she suspected led to his bedroom, as it was the room in the tower directly underneath hers. After a barely audible knock she opened the door cautiously and peeked into the room. The shades were drawn, but in the light coming from the hallway she could see that the bed was unoccupied. Frowning, she stepped into the room and switched on the lights. When she was sure that he wasn’t there and having heard no sounds from the bathroom either, she turned to leave and ran into a broad black-clothed chest. “Jeez!” she exclaimed and took a step back. “I’ve looked everywhere for you!”

Lacroix raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? It appears that you have found your quarry. May I ask what is suddenly so important that it warrants an intrusion into my bedroom during the day? A change of heart perhaps? I recall that you fled from my presence rather urgently after our previous encounter.”

Natalie stared at him, drawn between the blood rising to her cheeks at his reminder of their previous occupation and her anger at his meddling with her mind and body. “I need answers.”

“Answers? Are you certain that there isn’t a more pressing need?”

Natalie took another step backwards farther into the bedroom. “I think not.”

Lacroix chuckled at her obvious discomfort. “Oh, my dear, I was referring to a baser need.”

In response Natalie’s stomach growled loudly. She crossed her arms in front of her in order to silence the noise.

“Well?” Lacroix inquired. “You look hungry.”

“That’s what I need answers for. I haven’t been able to eat since before the ball!” Natalie fumed.

“Why is it that I constantly have to remind my children of the importance of proper nourishment? It is not a good idea to neglect your needs, especially after engaging in such physical activity as you have,” Lacroix scolded mildly.

“And whose fault is it that I couldn’t keep anything down?” Natalie hollered.

“Whose indeed? You’re the one who ran away.”

“I didn’t run away. I merely went out to think without any distraction.”

“Ah, and have you thought?”

“Not really,” Natalie admitted. “While I was out, my body started to react badly. I was too worried to form a clear thought.”

“A predicament of your own making, I would say. Had I known your intention, I would have advised you to stay.”

“So you knew this would happen? A warning would have been nice.”

“I did not deem that necessary since I didn’t expect you to leave after our tryst.”

Natalie regarded him questioningly. “What else did you expect me to do? Swoon at your feet and beg you for a repeat performance?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, for your information, I do not want one, at least not one like that.”

Lacroix looked at her, utterly dumbfounded. “Was something wrong? You appeared to be quite satisfied afterwards and I never received any complaints in 2000 years!”

“Oh yeah? And how many mortals were able to voice a complaint after you bit them?” Natalie shot back.

“There was no need. I would have tasted any discontent in their blood,” Lacroix replied, unperturbed.

“Has it ever occurred to you that women might not consider the way you took me as the most dignified or romantic position? It was impersonal and possessive. If that is your idea of a relationship, you can forget it.” She stormed past him. “Now, is there any decent food left in this house?”

“If you would proceed to the dining room, Giselle should have your dinner ready by now.”

Natalie stopped in her tracks and turned back to him. “How did she know I would be back tonight?”

“I notified her immediately after your arrival.” At Natalie’s surprised look, he added, “Do you think I wouldn’t notice when a mortal enters my home? In spite of your objections to my view of our relationship, I do not neglect the needs of my honoured guests – if they let me.”

* * * *

Natalie took a tentative bite of her meal. Much to her relief her appetite increased with each bite and she finished the entire meal without any sensation of nausea. “That was delicious,” she commented.

“Did you doubt my cuisine?” Lacroix asked, sitting across from her.

“I’m not sure if it’s your cuisine or your presence that enables me to tolerate this again. Janette mentioned that my body was reacting to your absence. Is that true?”

“What do you think?”

“I refuse to believe that you have any impact on my bodily functions. There has to be a scientific explanation for what I experienced.”

Lacroix regarded her over steeped fingers. “And how do you intend to discover this scientific cause?”

“I don’t know. You could simply tell me the truth.”

Lacroix leaned forward in his chair. “Very well. Your unexpected response appears to confirm that I don’t have any impact on your bodily functions. If I had, you wouldn’t have run away, but rather swooned at my feet and begged for a repeat performance as you so rightfully observed. Now, where did you take refuge?”

“Corsica.”

“Corsica?” Lacroix frowned. “I looked all over town for you. And when I was certain that you had left the city, I came here because I thought you might return to pick up your remaining luggage.”

“It was a rather spur-of-the-moment decision. I got lost and ended up at the port.” Natalie looked at him gleefully.

“May I ask what you find so amusing, my dear?” There was a touch of irritation in his voice.

“Neither did I swoon at your feet nor did I go where you expected me to. That means I still have my own will which I intend to keep for your information.”

Lacroix’s frown deepened. “Would you care for some tea with honey?”

“No, thank you!” Natalie became immediately alert. “Nick warned me not to accept any offers of honey from you. I don’t intend to have you drink from me again.”

Lacroix raised an eyebrow. “I thought you craved an answer to your dilemma. Would it not be the scientific approach to repeat the experiment and see if the outcome is the same?”

It was uttered as a casual question and yet caused Natalie’s heart rate to increase tremendously. “I really don’t think that’s a good idea,” she declined, flustered.

“And if I conceded to a more conventional mode of coupling?”

“You mean without biting?”

Lacroix chuckled. “That part is unavoidable, my dear. I was referring to the position you complained about.”

“Oh.” Natalie’s face was aflame by now. In addition she felt her body reacting in response to his suggestions. Reaching for her glass of white wine, she emptied it in a huge swallow.

Immediately Lacroix rose from his seat and walked around the table to refill her glass. He returned the bottle to the cooler and remained standing behind her.

Natalie tensed as she felt his hands on her shoulders.

“Your scent tells me that I seem to have an effect on your bodily functions after all,” he whispered suggestively into her ear, his lips barely touching her skin.

Natalie raised her head in order to face him and found her lips instantly devoured in an ardent kiss. All rational thought left her as she hungrily returned the kiss. Inflamed with passion she reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck.

After a few more moments of tongue duelling, Lacroix lifted her from her seat. “I take that as consent,” he murmured against her lips, while he carried her up the stairs.

Natalie barely registered that he had carried her into her room. He lowered her to her feet next to the bed and pulled her t-shirt over her head. Turning her around, he unhooked her bra and freed her breasts. Natalie moaned as his hands covered her breasts and skilfully teased her nipples to hardness. While she leaned with her back against him, his right hand slowly moved down her belly and slid underneath the waistband of her leggings and panties to probe teasingly against her female core.

“Hmm, a quite intense reaction to my presence I would say. You’re deliciously wet, my dear, quite ripe for the taking,” he purred against the side of her neck.

Natalie whimpered as he stroked her womanhood, her legs threatening to stop supporting her. When she thought she would come with his next stroke, he stopped his teasing and turned her back to face him. He brushed her leggings and underwear down to her knees and motioned her to sit on the bed before removing her clothing the rest of the way.

Natalie lay back on the sheets, still panting heavily from his attentions. “Aren’t you a tad overdressed?” she asked, eyeing him expectantly.

“It would appear so, wouldn’t it?” Lacroix took his time to undress himself, folding each garment neatly on a stack.

Natalie watched his every movement, her body yearning for his touch.

Finally he joined her on the bed. His mouth sought her lips again while his left hand travelled playfully over her skin, yet leaving her womanhood untouched, building Natalie’s desire anew. After brushing a trail of tender kisses along her calf and inner thigh, he raised her right leg over his shoulder and positioned himself at her entrance.

As he hovered above her, ready to proceed, Natalie froze at the sight of golden eyes staring down at her. Lacroix immediately stopped and rolled away from her, sitting up at the side of the bed, facing away from her. “And that is why I chose to take you from behind,” he stated in a soft voice.

When he turned back to her, Natalie was relieved that his eyes had returned to their fathomless blue colour. Yet she was still so shaken by the sudden emergence of the vampire that she merely continued to stare.

“If you wish to continue, you either get used to it or let me use a blindfold on you,” Lacroix suggested.

Natalie’s eyes widened. “No!” she declined, horrified by the mere suggestion. “Just go,” she muttered. “Please?”

Without a word Lacroix rose from the bed and left her room without bothering to dress. When she was sure that he was gone, Natalie slowly relaxed, only now noticing that she was shivering. Pulling the covers over her, she began to weep noiselessly.

* * * *

After dozing on and off for several hours, Natalie took a shower and dressed. On her way to the bathroom she noticed that his pile of clothes was gone. He must have picked it up while she was dozing. The realization that he had been in her room without her noticing it made her shiver.

It was still dark, so Lacroix would probably still be up. She knew she had to face him eventually and decided to get it over with. She went downstairs to prepare tea in the kitchen. Carrying her mug with her, she stepped hesitantly into the parlour.

As she had expected, Lacroix sat by the fireplace, reading a paper. He looked up as she entered. “Would you care to explain the hysterics?” he inquired sternly.

“I wasn’t hysterical!” Natalie contradicted. At his raised eyebrow, she relented, “Okay, maybe a little. I thought you had lost control. Whenever Nick changed during a kiss, he always broke things off immediately.”

“So I have to thank Nicholas for a ruined night,” Lacroix concluded while he tossed the newspaper onto the table. “For your information, I am not known to lose control.”

“I’ve never seen you change before. And I surely didn’t expect it to happen so close. Give me some time to get used to that sight.”

Lacroix raised his eyebrow. “Of course. You can have eternity to get used to it, if you choose.” He rose from his seat and approached her. “However, should you not rather ask yourself why you believe that you need to get used to it? You do know what I am. Surely you haven’t mistaken me for a mortal lover?”

“Jeez, until recently I had no clue that biting was involved,” Natalie exclaimed.

“And yet you have accepted that fact.” Holding her gaze, he slowly allowed his eyes to change. Immediately, Natalie’s heart beat faster. “Why do you find this sight of me unsettling?”

“It’s kind of a cold shower. A dose of reality, if you know what I mean.”

“Explain.”

Natalie sighed and fidgeted nervously with her fingers, looking anywhere but at him. “Seeing you change made me realize what you are and what you’ve done.”

Lacroix reached out and raised her chin to force her to look at him. “Are you telling me that you have been deluding yourself and denying what I am?” he asked in disbelief.

“I preferred not to think about what you are. It made things easier,” she confessed while watching in fascination as his eyes returned to their pale blue colour.

“You did not seem to have a problem accepting Nicholas’ nature,” Lacroix pointed out.

“Nick’s different. He hasn’t killed in a hundred years.”

“Ah yes, that’s what he prefers to claim. You are aware that there have been the occasional exceptions that he obviously failed to mention?”

“I don’t want to discuss Nick.” Natalie crossed her arms. “We were talking about you. How long has it been since you last killed someone?” she challenged.

Lacroix glanced casually at the clock on the mantle before stating calmly, “Over five hours.”

“What?!” Natalie gasped and retreated a step from him.

Lacroix shrugged. “It didn’t seem likely that I was getting any sustenance from you this night. Are you now blaming me for dining out instead?”

Natalie stared at him, utterly horrified. “Someone had to die because of me? And you wonder why I get the creeps when you change?”

“The creeps? I was under the impression that our so called condition is the very quality that you adore. Fascinating I believe was the word you used.”

“Yes,” Natalie admitted although she couldn’t recall when they had had that conversation. “But that doesn’t apply when you kill.”

“I believe I’ve already pointed out that I have no intention of changing my habits. You knew that before you shared my bed. Why does it upset you now?”

Natalie turned abruptly away from him. “Because I thought I was falling in love with you! But I can’t love a killer,” she exclaimed in despair.

“Ah. An unfortunate predicament, isn’t it?”

“Predicament? Is that all you have to say?” She turned back to him furiously.

“What else do you expect me to say?” he arched an eyebrow.

“A reaction to my confession would be nice.” She had just told him that she was falling in love with him and he didn’t even bother to acknowledge that fact!

“What confession?” he looked at her, apparently clueless.

“Did I not just tell you that I was falling in love with you?”

“That was hardly a confession, my dear. I’ve known it for a while.”

“How could you have known?”

“It was quite apparent when I tasted your blood. All the more reason it didn’t make sense for you to run away.”

“I was a little overwhelmed. I’ve never had experienced anything like that night. The thought of how easy it would be to succumb in order to feel it again scared me. And the fact that you continue to kill people tells me that I was right not to succumb.”

Lacroix frowned. “And if I stopped killing you would give your consent to be brought across?”

Natalie’s eyes widened. “Would you stop killing?” she asked hopefully.

“Certainly not! I do not accede to requests from mere mortals.”

“And if I came across and asked you then to stop killing? Would you listen to me then?”

Lacroix regarded her, slightly amused. “Of course I would listen. But do not expect me to accede to requests from a mere child.”

Natalie exhaled in frustration.

“It would appear that we have reached a stalemate. A rare occurrence indeed.”

“What is to be done in case of a stalemate?” Natalie asked curiously.

“One starts a new game, a clean slate if you will.”

“Are you suggesting that I should simply forget what you did?”

“I’m recommending that you cease to be bothered by my extra-curricular activities.”

“How can I not be bothered when a man dies?”

“Mortals die. Does it really matter how or when?”

“It does to me, especially when you’re the cause,” Natalie insisted. “I thought you had a well-stocked cellar. Why the need for those extra-curricular activities?”

“You may recall that we broke off in the middle of something,” Lacroix reminded her. “Bottled blood is a poor substitute to achieve climax.”

“Oh,” Natalie’s face took on a deep red colour. “Are you implying that on top of killing someone you also had ––“

Lacroix raised an eyebrow. “And if I had? Jealous, my dear?”

“Jealous? I’m upset! How can you kill someone you obviously made love to?”

“That is the natural consequence when vampires have intercourse with mortals.”

“You didn’t kill me,” Natalie pointed out.

“As I’ve already mentioned several times, I do have other plans for you.”

“And if I don’t give my consent?” Natalie challenged.

“One day you will. I can wait; I have all the time in the world.”

“How can you be so sure? Even if I considered it a few days ago, what you did tonight did not exactly help your cause.”

“Your reasoning is illogical, my dear. We have already established that your coming across will have no impact on my dining habits.”

“Why should I consider it at all then? What would be the advantage if I can’t stop you from killing?”

“My dear, please do not consider coming across as a sacrifice to save mankind from my appetite. That would be a lost cause. If you come across, it should be the consequence of desire,” he spoke persuasively, holding her gaze. “Has your recent experience not made you curious about what it would be like to abandon yourself completely to the act?”

Natalie stared at him, mesmerized, her heart rate increasing steadily as the reminder of her intimate encounter pushed the reason she had been so upset with him unbidden out of her mind altogether.

“The act?” she stuttered, swallowing.

Lacroix reached out and brushed a finger caressingly over the bite marks on her neck. “The sensation you felt was unlike anything you have experienced before, wasn’t it?” he purred in a silken voice.

Natalie nodded, entranced, and closed her eyes briefly as she relived the incredible feeling that had been coursing through her when his lips were poised at her neck to suckle on her life’s essence.

Lacroix smiled, his finger travelling over her neck to her chin, lifting it slightly. “Has Nicholas ever explained the concept of love between vampires?”

When she merely shook her head, he continued. “Of course not, otherwise you wouldn’t have been so surprised at being bitten. Usually I expect to be bitten in return.”

Natalie’s eyes widened at that.

“Imagine what you experienced magnified by the mutual sharing of blood. Every sensation triggered by touch transformed into taste, a euphoric rush of your lover’s perceptions on your tongue, stimulating you to bury your fangs deeper, to take your lover’s essence inside you until there is no beginning and no end and you become one entity. The desire to experience that should be your reason to come across.”

Natalie couldn’t deny the effect his vivid description had on her. She reached for the newspaper he had abandoned on the table and used it as a fan to counter the rising heat inside of her.

Lacroix gently reached for the paper and tossed it back onto the table. “Perhaps knowing that biting is inevitable will enable you to appreciate a repetition without the surprise element?”

Lifting her chin he leaned down to initiate a kiss to which Natalie responded hungrily before she could stop herself. Slightly embarrassed at her response, she took a step back to put some distance between them. For a brief moment she tried to recall that there was a reason why she shouldn’t succumb to his seduction, but her mind came up utterly blank.

“Your reaction is only natural since you did not receive any satisfaction either last night,” Lacroix observed.

Of course, that must explain her preoccupation, she rationalized.

“I intend to remedy that situation,” he assured her.

“But you won’t bring me across tonight,” Natalie insisted.

“No, I will merely bring you to climax violently in my arms.” He allowed himself a triumphant smile and reached for her hand.

Face aflame and her mind a muddle of desire, Natalie followed hesitantly as he drew her with him upstairs into his bedroom. Again he started to undress her in fluid motions, stopping in-between to caress newly exposed skin with his lips. Natalie shyly reached forward to unbutton his shirt, but was soon too caught up in his attentions to do anything else. Her skin was tingling in craving for his touch by the time he finished relieving her of her clothes.

After taking off his own garments, he retrieved a silk scarf from a drawer and held it out to her with a questioning glance. Realizing his intention, Natalie backed slightly away on the bed. “Um, I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” she stammered.

“I’m sure you will appreciate the additional stimulus,” he breathed. “Trust me? No harm will come to you tonight.”

Natalie shivered in excitement at the prospect of being bereft of her sight, knowing it would enhance her remaining senses. Imperceptibly she nodded her consent before anything changed her mind. Lacroix’s smile was the last she saw of him before he fastened the scarf around her head, effectively trapping her in darkness.

Immediately her body reacted and she felt her nipples harden and heat build in her womb. Swallowing, she leaned back onto the linens and waited in nervous anticipation for his touch. She felt the mattress shift from his weight as he joined her. Then his lips were on her mouth, sucking on her tongue while his hand pressed gently against her womanhood. Natalie moaned and pushed herself against his probing hand only to find it no longer there but cupping her breast instead. He chuckled lowly at her protest before closing his lips over her erect nipple, sucking steadily, while kneading its counterpart with his other hand.

Natalie arched her back in total abandon. Slowly his lips moved lower. Once he had moved past her belly, he bent her legs apart to expose her glistening core. Natalie gasped as his cool lips closed over her throbbing nub, teasing it in an increasing rhythm that left her senses reeling. When she was on the verge of exploding, he changed position, lifted one leg over his shoulder and entered her in a single thrust. Natalie screamed as she came immediately. He remained motionless until her shuddering subsided, and then he began to thrust, altering the angle with each stroke. Natalie felt herself climbing to the peak again, her sense of touch perceiving the depth of his strokes with heightened intensity. She groaned in ecstasy and arched her head, exposing her neck in unconscious begging for his bite. He gave one more thrust before she felt hot pain at the side of her neck as his fangs penetrated her skin. The immediate pull of his lips on her neck sent her over the edge into an earth-shattering climax that was prolonged by the constant suckling on her neck. She barely noticed his own release deep within her before he pulled away from her neck with a low grunt.

Natalie lay panting for a moment, before she reached up to push the blindfold cautiously from her eyes. “Wow,” she gasped in amazement.

Lacroix’s blue eyes regarded her with a curious expression. “So, Miss Lambert, what complaints do you harbour this time?”

Natalie was too overwhelmed from the intense encounter to come up with any criticism. “None at the moment,” she replied sheepishly. “I feel quite pleased at the moment.”

“I’m so glad,” he purred and bent over her neck to lap a few times over the new set of bite marks until they ceased oozing.

“How much did you take?” Natalie wanted to know.

“About the same amount as last time.”

“Hm, that’s half a litre in less than a week,” Natalie calculated with a hint of worry in her voice.

“Your worry about too much blood loss is unnecessary, my dear, because you received a fair amount of mine to replace yours,” Lacroix explained calmly.

Natalie looked at him, surprised. “I did?” At his raised eyebrow, she caught his meaning and blushed. “Oh, that.”

Lacroix smiled enigmatically. “Yes, that. It will work its magic while you sleep and restore you to your natural strength. I would advise you, however, to stay out of direct sunlight for a day or two. I sincerely hope you aren’t planning to run again?”

Smiling, Natalie snuggled closer to him. “I wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” she mumbled sleepily before drifting off.

* * * *

Natalie woke with the nagging feeling that she had forgotten something important. There was something tugging at the edge of her memory, but she couldn’t place it. Certain that it would come back later, she took in her surroundings.

She was still in Lacroix’s bedroom. The digital clock on the nightstand told her that it was late afternoon. In the dim light she made out Lacroix’s form on the far side of the bed, apparently still asleep. Natalie remembered that she had been lying close to him before falling asleep. Obviously he wasn’t the cuddling type, she thought with regret, which caused her to doubt again whether she meant more to him than a meal.

Disentangling herself from the mass of sheets, she stepped into the ensuite bathroom, closed the door and turned on the light. A look into the mirror revealed a second pair of bite marks next to the previous ones. Much to her relief, she felt great, with no obvious side effects of major blood loss.

When she returned from the bathroom, Lacroix was sitting up in bed, sipping from a glass of blood. “Good evening,” he breathed. “I’m pleased to find you still here.”

“You were right. I don’t feel any effect of blood loss.” She crawled back onto the bed and settled next to him. Regarding his pale chest in fascination, she reached out tentatively and brushed her fingertips in caressing circles over his skin.

Raising an eyebrow at her action, he placed his glass onto the nightstand and leaned against the headboard. Natalie took that as an invitation to continue. Leaning forward, she brushed her lips briefly against his, before kissing her way along his chin and down the side of his neck. As she deepened the kiss over his vein, she heard a low rumbling sound before he pushed her gently away.

Natalie was surprised to see golden eyes. Yet, it didn’t frighten her this time. Instead she found the sight rather arousing, which was unsettling on its own.

“I appreciate the intention, my dear, but if you continue, you will miss tonight’s entertainment,” Lacroix stated, while his eyes returned to their blue colour.

“There’s entertainment?”

“Yes, I’m expecting a couple of visitors for a wine tasting.”

“Mortals?” Natalie asked, intrigued.

“Mostly. A few people from the village and surrounding area. Wear something nice.”

Feeling dismissed, yet too eager to see what the evening had in store, Natalie nodded instead of remarking on his condescension, pulled her t-shirt over her head and headed back to her own room for a shower.

* * * *

Natalie sat at the vanity in her room, trying to cover up the bite marks with make-up. She wore a knee-length black cocktail dress. Her hair was piled up on her head, leaving her neck and the marks quite visible.

There was a soft knock on her door, before Lacroix entered, dressed in a black Armani suit. He walked up behind her and slid something around her neck. In the mirror Natalie recognized the sapphire necklace she had worn to the ball.

“It was a gift, not a loan,” Lacroix scolded mildly. “I expect you to keep it.”

Natalie smiled self-consciously and touched the necklace in awe. “I’m not sure I can accept that, Lucius. It’s priceless.”

“And so are you, my dear,” he breathed.

Natalie’s smile broadened. “Do you think this will do?” She indicated the bite marks.

Lacroix reached out and removed the pins she had used to fasten her hair on top of her head, undoing what had taken her half an hour to create. Once her hair hung loosely around her shoulders, he nodded in satisfaction. “That will do. No need to tempt my guests, my dear.” He brushed a brief kiss on her cheek and left.

* * * *

Natalie followed the sound of voices and descended the stairs hesitantly into the hall. About twenty people were already mingling around tall tables. Waiters were busy filling glasses and passing trays laden with hors d’oeuvres around. The moment she reached the foot of the stairs, Lacroix was at her side and proceeded to show her around, introducing her as Dr. Lambert, a guest from Canada. Natalie was slightly offended by the impersonal description of their relationship.

“I’m a mere guest now?” she whispered at the first opportunity when he had stopped to refill her glass of wine.

Lacroix regarded her with an amused expression. “I can hardly introduce you as my daughter, can I? Or would you prefer current mistress?”

Natalie’s face turned red. “Guest is fine,” she relented.

“That’s what I thought.”

As the night wore on, more people entered the hall. Some of them Natalie suspected to be vampires. Her suspicions were confirmed when they received their beverages from the same waiter who kept refilling Lacroix’s glass. She retreated into a corner after realizing that her French wasn’t extensive enough to follow the multiple conversations.

Her face lit up as she noticed Nick entering the hall. He nodded in greeting to several of the guests she suspected to be vampires before making his way towards her.

“Hey, I didn’t know you were on the guest list,” Natalie greeted him with a smile.

“I needed to see if you were all right,” Nick stated and stared at her intensely.

“I’m fine, really. The food problem is resolved,” Natalie beamed and took a healthy bite from a grape and cheese skewer.

“Really,” Nick stated darkly and brushed her hair away from her neck to reveal the double set of bite marks. “At what price?”

“Stop it!” she hissed, swatting his hand away.

“How could you let him do that again, knowing what the consequences are?”

“It happened and I enjoyed it. Just live with it, Nick. You know, there was a time when I wished we could have had this if you had the guts to admit your feelings!” When tears welled up in her eyes, she turned on her heels and hurried upstairs, taking refuge in the parlour.

“Natalie!” Nick had followed immediately and stopped close behind her. “It is because of my feelings that you are in this situation now.”

Natalie turned around. “What do you mean?”

“Why do you think Lacroix chose you? Because you’re the mortal I fell in love with!”

Natalie paled. “I don’t understand.” For six years she had been waiting to hear that commitment from him. However, the way he said it now did not stir up the feelings of pure joy she had expected to flare then.

Agitated, Nick brushed his hand through his hair. “Back in 1229 Lacroix fell in love with my sister. He wanted to bring her across, but I talked him out of it under the condition that he could instead take the mortal I fell in love with. You. I did everything to convince him that I do not love you. I even asked him to make you forget about me. But I’ve never been able to hide my feelings from him.”

Natalie shivered. “Are you telling me that Lucius merely picked me to get back at you for something that happened 800 years ago?”

“You’re mistaken if you believe he loves you.”

“I never expected that he would. But I do believe that he cares. I feel safe with him and he’s a marvellous companion. He has so much history to tell. I could listen for the rest of my life to his stories from the past. You never told me anything. I mean, you mentioned that you’ve known Beethoven and Hieronymus Bosch, but you’ve never elaborated on any slice of life stories, how it was to live in those times.”

“I didn’t want to upset you with horror stories from my past,” Nick said gloomily.

“And that’s the difference between you: for you the past is all gloom and doom, with Lucius it’s a lively history lesson. He’s not assuming what I can take and what not. You say that you love me, but instead of telling me, you go back to Janette.”

Nick took a step towards her and grabbed her upper arms. “Natalie, if I had succeeded in becoming mortal, nothing could have stopped me from professing my love for you. However, as long as I am what I am, we cannot be together anyway.”

“And what if I come across?” Natalie challenged.

Nick abruptly let go of her and shook his head, indicating that he still wouldn’t make a commitment even if she came across.

“So it’s my mortality that you love, and not me,” Natalie concluded quietly. “You would still go to Janette because she’s whom you’ve always loved.”

“She knows and accepts all of me! I don’t have to hide anything from her,” Nick explained.

After a moment of silence, Natalie continued, heedless of his words, “But when you only love my mortality and not me, Lucius has no reason to pick me in order to get back at you. That means he might actually have chosen me for my own sake.” Natalie beamed suddenly as this realization hit. “Excuse me, I need to get back to the party!”

She turned on her heels and hurried back to the hall. On the stairs she scanned the crowd until she discovered Lucius eyeing her with a tender smile. Returning the smile happily, she continued down the stairs when she slipped in her excitement on her heels and fell. Excruciating pain flared up as her head hit the floor. Then everything went black.

* * * *

Natalie woke in a hospital bed, experiencing a sense of déjà vu when a nurse appeared in her field of vision.

“Bon jour, Natalie. You are at the Hospital Centre Henri Duffaut in Avignon,” the nurse informed her in a heavy French accent. “Do you remember what happened?”

Natalie took a while to gather her thoughts. The last she remembered was a warm smile from Lucius across the room. In her haste to get to him she had slipped on the stairs. “I tripped on the stairs,” she recalled.

“You have a basilar skull fracture and a strained ankle. You were lucky that you didn’t break your neck.”

“How long have I been out?” The curtains were drawn and Natalie had absolutely no sense of timing.

“You were brought in two days ago. Doctor Brice will explain the medical details.”

“Where’s Lucius?” Natalie asked.

“The gentleman who refused to leave your side until you were stable? I’m sure he’s hovering around here somewhere.”

Natalie gathered from her tense tone that she was obviously unnerved by Lacroix’s presence. As if on cue, the door opened and Lacroix entered behind another man in a white coat.

“Dr. Lambert? I’m Dr. Brice, the radiologist at Henri Duffaut. You’re one lucky lady. The CT scan showed only hairline fractures. There was no need for surgery. However, we would like to keep you here for another week so that we can monitor you closely and rule out complications such as meningitis. Let us know if you experience any cognitive deficits or an impact on your olfactory or gustatory senses. We’ve splinted your left ankle. You should be back to normal in a month or two.”

“A month?” Natalie wasn’t sure if she had the patience to go through another extended period of recuperation.

“Try to get more rest now,” the doctor said and left, followed by the nurse.

When they were gone, Lacroix advanced towards the bed.

“Hi,” Natalie greeted him softly. “How bad was it?”

Raising an eyebrow at the question, Lacroix replied, “Very bad. Your mortal condition is causing nothing but trouble.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t bring me across.”

“My dear, you stumbled down the stairs in the presence of thirty mortal witnesses. A spontaneous recovery would have been highly inconvenient to explain.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about disrupting your party,” Natalie said sarcastically.

“You were lucky not to become the main course. Ending up on the floor with blood gushing from your nose is not very clever in the presence of immortal guests who came expecting the treat of a special flavour,” Lacroix scolded mildly.

“Sorry for being so clumsy,” Natalie muttered.

“You appeared to be rather agitated when you came down the stairs. I need to know. Was it something Nicholas said that disturbed you to the point of not paying attention where you stepped?” Lacroix asked sternly.

Natalie tried to recall the conversation. “We had an argument. What he said made me realize something. And that realization prompted me to rush back to you. I’m afraid it was my zeal to see you that caused me to stumble, not something that Nick had said.”

When Lacroix’s features softened, Natalie asked, ”Why?”

“Because I promised him there would be consequences if he was responsible for your fall,” he said darkly.

Natalie held out her hand. “Lucius, don’t. I couldn’t come across if you two were at odds.”

Surprised, Lacroix reached for her hand. “Does that mean you have come to a decision?”

Natalie’s smile deepened. “Let’s say I am no longer opposed to the idea.”

Bending closer, Lacroix whispered into her ear: “How wonderful. I am so happy.”

Natalie tensed as those words triggered a memory. Sudden pain flared in her head and she groaned as a sequence replayed in her mind of a meeting with her and Lacroix at Azure that ended with those very words being whispered into her ear before she felt his fang tips at her neck.

“Natalie? What’s wrong now?” Lacroix frowned at her reaction. “Are you in pain?”

Natalie held her head and waited until the memory had played out. “I –– I remembered something. Our first meeting at Azure, years ago.”

“Oh?” Lacroix’s eyebrows shot up.

“I thought I had spent that Valentine’s Day with Nick, but it was you who waited for me at the restaurant. You did something to me. I remember being completely entranced while you were talking. How is that possible? I’m a resistor!” Although Nick had told her that he had asked Lacroix to make her forget about him, she had never believed that she would succumb to hypnotism.

“Do you think I wouldn’t know how to work around resisting minds if need be?” Lacroix breathed, shattering her conviction. “Why does that memory upset you now?”

“If you did that then, how can I be sure you didn’t mess with my mind again when it suited you?”

“You appear to have already made up your mind that I have,” Lacroix observed.

“I need to know the truth, Lucius. Have you made me forget anything since I’ve been here?”

Lacroix regarded her with a deep frown.

“Tell me! You have, haven’t you?” Natalie insisted.

“I merely ended a pointless argument,” Lacroix admitted.

Natalie looked at him, flabbergasted. “An argument? We’re constantly arguing.”

“Yes, and while I find our quarrels usually delightful, this particular one was rather pointless and tiresome.”

“You mean, instead of considering my side of the argument, you simply decided to erase my point of view? That is absolutely not how a relationship between two adults should work.”

“My dear, the predominant relationship we will have when I bring you across is that I shall be your eternal teacher. You may as well start now to take my point of view for granted.”

“And who made you omniscient? Forget what I said earlier about being no longer opposed to coming across! This definitely changes my mind. And don’t you dare go making me forget this argument as well!” Natalie responded heatedly.

“May I remind you that you just woke from a major head wound? I don’t think getting all worked up is what the doctor meant when he recommended rest.”

Natalie became aware of an insistent pounding in her head. “Fine, I’ll rest. But this argument isn’t over yet. And you still haven’t told me what you made me forget.”

“I suggest we postpone this conversation until you’re in the proper shape to deal with it.”

“Is it that bad?” Natalie frowned.

“You seemed to think so at the time.” Lacroix bent down to brush a kiss on her brow. “Sleep now.”

Nodding, Natalie closed her eyes and was asleep within seconds.

* * * *

When Natalie woke the next time, she was surprised to find Janette sitting in her room. “Where’s Lucius?” Natalie asked.

“He went home for a while. He has been here since your accident,” Janette informed her. “He was prepared to bring you across if need be.”

“Really? I got the impression that it would have been highly inconvenient for him if it had come to that.”

“Natalie, I believe you mean more to him than you think. He would have gone through with it, no matter the inconvenience. Of course, it is more pleasurable to be brought across consciously. I’m glad you survived on your own,” Janette smiled.

“I’m not so sure I really want to come across anymore. Lucius obviously messed with my mind. I didn’t know that he could do that. How can I trust him after that?”

“He can no longer do that when you’re a vampire,” Janette pointed out. “Do you know what it was that he made you forget?”

Natalie shook her head. “I just have the feeling that it was something important. But another memory from five years ago came back. It was the first time I met him and he had me completely entranced. That was absolutely scary! I don’t know why that memory came back, maybe because I hit my head.”

“Hmm, do you remember anything else from that night five years ago?” Janette asked curiously.

Natalie thought a moment. “I went to the Azure restaurant to meet Nick. But instead Lucius awaited me there. He said he had rented out the entire restaurant in my honour.” Natalie smiled at the memory. It was so characteristic of Lucius.

“What was his reaction when he met you?”

“He said I was exquisite and radiant.”

“Natalie, Lacroix does not make such compliments lightly. I’m sure you already made an impression on him then.”

Natalie laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. Obviously, he intended to kill me then and there if Nick hadn’t intervened.”

“Or he could have brought you across then,” Janette suggested.

“I wanted neither at the time. I was in love with Nick!”

“And now?” Janette probed.

Natalie sighed. “I don’t know. Nick made it perfectly clear that it was my mortality he loved and I have absolutely no clue what Lucius’ feelings are. Am I just another conquest? Does he want me merely to keep him entertained? It’s totally frustrating!”

“Natalie, do not concern yourself with what men feel,” Janette advised. “It’s more important what you feel for them!”

“I’m still finding Lucius totally fascinating. But how can I trust him again when he continues to mess with my mind?”

“You’re an intelligent woman, Natalie. Just trust in your own feelings. He may be able to affect your memories, but he cannot change how you feel.”

Natalie sighed. “Lucius has a good advocate in you. Your relationship to him is so very different from Nick’s. How can I be certain that mine doesn’t deteriorate like Nick’s? I couldn’t bear an eternity of hatred.”

“Nicolas’ and Lacroix’s relationship is complicated. It has not always been like this. And I can assure you that it is not driven by hatred.”

“But yours is much smoother than Nick’s,” Natalie continued. “How do you manage that?”

“When Lacroix brought me across, he saved me from the horrors of my mortal life. I’m eternally grateful for that.”

“So you do whatever he asks of you?” Natalie asked doubtfully.

“To a point. He brought me across so that I could control my own fate. He has always respected that since.”

“And Nick? What was his reason for bringing Nick across?”

Janette smiled broadly. “How should I phrase this delicately? Our dear Nicolas was the victim of passionate carnal desire.”

“He brought him across so that you could be together,” Natalie concluded. “That was unusually altruistic of him. I’m glad it worked out for you, Janette.”

Janette remained silent.

“Do you know what happened at the castle after my fall?” Natalie broke the silence. “I haven’t had an opportunity yet to ask Lucius.”

“What I heard was that Lacroix rushed to your assistance. Someone called an ambulance. Nicolas examined you and concluded that you were not in immediate danger of dying.”

“Nick examined me?”

“He has been a doctor before and has some medical knowledge,” Janette shrugged.

“But that was over a hundred years ago!” Natalie exclaimed, upset that her initial diagnosis had been based on 19th century science.

“When the ambulance arrived it was decided to bring you here by helicopter. Lacroix accompanied you while Nicolas stayed behind to see to Lacroix’s guests,” Janette concluded.

“I feel so embarrassed at drawing so much attention,” Natalie muttered chagrined. “The whole village must think me awfully clumsy.”

“Well, immortality has its advantages in that regard.” Janette rose from her seat. “I must be on my way.” She picked up a duffel bag from the floor. “I brought some of your clothes and other amenities.”

“That’s very thoughtful, Janette. Thanks!” Natalie watched as Janette slipped out of the door.

* * * *

On the following day Natalie was allowed to get up briefly for a short trip to the bathroom. She was shocked at her reflection in the mirror. The basilar skull fracture had come with its tell-tale signs of periorbital circles around her eyes. “Oh dear,” she muttered and returned to the bed.

Another surprise was revealed when the IV line was removed and the bandage around her wrist replaced by a smaller band-aid. Natalie discovered a neat set of bite marks on her wrist. Apparently she hadn’t gotten the whole story from Janette. She waited eagerly for sunset and hoped Lacroix would make an appearance.

She didn’t have to wait long. After she had emptied a bowl of soup for dinner, Lacroix entered.

“Good evening, my dear,” he greeted her and brushed a kiss on her brow. “How are you this evening?”

“Fine. Would you explain these?” Natalie held out her wrist.

“A means of precaution,” Lacroix provided and perched on her bed. “I needed to know your disposition in case you were beyond mortal help.”

“Let me get this straight. I took a pretty bad fall and you had nothing better to do other than to feed on me while Nick tried to assess my condition with his medieval medical knowledge?”

Lacroix frowned at her outburst. “Your sense of history is flawed, my dear. The American Civil War did not occur during the Middle Ages. And I did not feed on you. I told you it is a matter of balance to counter side effects when vampire blood is received.”

Natalie looked at him sharply. “Wait a minute. You gave me blood?”

“I told you it was very bad. We were uncertain if you had any cranial nerve injuries. So we decided on a prophylactic treatment. In consequence you were officially diagnosed with hairline fractures.”

“Uh-huh.” Natalie digested that information. “Thank you, I guess.”

“You’re most welcome. It would have been a pity to lose you to clumsiness on the eve of eternity.”

Natalie glared at him. “That is still under debate.”

“It was quite plain in your blood that evening.”

“And then new evidence emerged which caused me to reconsider. Are you now ready to tell me what you made me forget?”

“I don’t think that would be wise.”

“I’m not asking for wisdom, I’m asking for the truth, Lucius,” Natalie remained adamant.

“It was the very truth that upset you so, my dear. You asked a question and I answered truthfully. You could not take the truth. I will not upset you to satisfy your curiosity unless you happen to ask the very question again.”

“Fine. I’ll ask Nick or Janette to lift whatever you did from my mind.”

“Janette would not know what to look for and I strongly advise against having Nicholas attempt anything that requires focusing on your heartbeat.”

“Why? Where is he by the way? He hasn’t dropped by to visit.” Natalie found it odd that Janette had been here, but not Nick.

Lacroix examined his finger nails while replying in a casual tone. “Nicholas was unwell. Something he ate didn’t agree with him.”

“But you can’t get sick. What happened? What did you do to him?” When Natalie recalled Lacroix’s initial question if Nick had anything to do with her fall, she feared the elder had exerted some sort of retaliation in spite of her assurances that the fall wasn’t Nick’s fault.

Lacroix let out a mirthless laugh. “I can assure you I had nothing to do with his condition. He brought it on all by himself.”

“But he’s better now?” Natalie grew concerned.

“I sincerely hope so.”

“You don’t know?” she asked alarmed.

“He hasn’t met you yet,” Lacroix shrugged.

“Me? What has this got to do with me? What’s wrong?”

“I believe I’ve already mentioned that you were close to becoming the evening’s main course? I carried you upstairs in order to remove the temptation from my guests. However, when Nicholas examined you, he got your blood all over his hands. He preferred to lick it off.”

Natalie stared at him in shock. “Nick tasted my blood?”

“Nicholas hasn’t had a warm meal in a very long time and certainly not one so delicious as you. When I returned from the hospital I found him in the cellar with half a dozen empty bottles scattered around him.”

“Oh my god!” Natalie breathed.

“He was ravenous and barely in control. I provided him with a stronger vintage, which appears to have restored his balance.”

“A stronger vintage?” Natalie queried, fearing that Lacroix had provided Nick with a living source of blood.

“Mine.”

“Uh-huh,” Natalie made a face.

Smiling, Lacroix reached out and brushed his finger tips along the side of her face. “Once you are eternal, you will cherish the blood of the one who brought you across.”

“You never told me who brought you across,” Natalie remarked.

The hand that caressed her cheek stopped abruptly and was withdrawn. Lacroix stood and picked up his coat. “She’s dead,” he provided curtly and moved to the door.

“I’m sorry,” Natalie said in sympathy.

“If you will excuse me, I need to see to the vineyard.”

Natalie found his sudden departure a little odd, but thought nothing of it.

* * * *

On the following day, Dr. Brice surprised Natalie with the information that she was going to be released if she got plenty of rest at home. “Your inflammation markers are normal. We found no hints of meningitis. I’ve called M. Lacroix. He will pick you up later this evening,” the doctor informed her.

Natalie was glad. As she received absolutely no visitors before sunset, the days stretched into tedious boredom. She yearned for Lucius’ extended company instead of having him visit briefly at night.

She had packed her few belongings into the duffel bag Janette had left and waited for sunset. She must have dozed off again because she woke from the gentle brush of fingertips against the side of her face. Smiling, she looked into Lacroix’s face. “I’m allowed to go home,” she beamed.

“So I have heard.” Lacroix helped her into a sitting position.

“Are you sure you want to put up with me like this? I’ll be completely useless for a week or so. Dr. Brice said I need plenty of rest. I’m not even supposed to read.”

“I believe we will find a way to keep you entertained.”

Natalie reached for the crutch that leaned against her bed.

“Don’t bother.” Lacroix shouldered the duffel bag before picking her up.

Natalie was amazed as he strode towards a shiny black Jaguar. “I didn’t know you had a car!” she exclaimed as he placed her gently on the passenger seat.

“I use it rarely.” He started the engine. “Unless some hapless mortal requires transportation.”

“I didn’t even know you could drive,” she remarked and received a glare in return.

After leaving Avignon, Lacroix took the winding road towards Montfaucon too fast for Natalie’s comfort. “I take that back. You cannot drive! I think I’m going to be sick,” she muttered.

Instead of slowing down, Lacroix accelerated and took the next bends even sharper than before.

“This isn’t helping, Lucius! Stop the car! Unless you want my last meal all over your upholstery.” Natalie clamped her hand over her mouth as her stomach rebelled violently.

Lacroix stopped the car with screeching brakes. Immediately, Natalie opened the door and emptied her stomach onto the roadside. Lacroix walked around the car and took in the near disaster his car had escaped. Apparently utterly clueless at what to do, he offered her a black handkerchief.

Natalie grabbed the cloth and wiped her mouth. “Why didn’t you slow down?”

“I assumed reaching our destination as fast as possible would shorten your discomfort,” he frowned.

“My head hurts,” Natalie groaned and leaned back in the seat while taking several cleansing breaths.

“I could bring you across here and now,” he offered.

Natalie shook her head. “No, not in this condition.”

“Your condition would improve instantly.”

“No, there are a few open issues that need to be resolved,” Natalie reminded him. “I just want to crawl into my bed right now, please?”

“As you wish,” he sighed and bent down to open her seat belt. He picked her up in his arms and was instantly airborne.

Natalie groaned and turned her head towards his chest.

A few minutes later they reached the castle.

“Did you fly all the way?” Nick met them as Lacroix entered the hall.

“Only the last part.” Lacroix tossed him the keys. “Bring in the car, will you? It’s parked on the roadside about a kilometer from the village sign.”

“Nat, are you okay?” Nick asked, concerned.

“Apparently, she is not okay, Nicholas. She needs to rest.” Lacroix continued up the stairs and placed Natalie gently on her bed. “Do you require anything else?”

Natalie shook her head and rolled onto her side. She fell instantly asleep.

* * * *

When Natalie woke up, the room was cast in darkness. She had no sense of time and reached out to switch on the bedside lamp. Startled, she discovered Lacroix asleep on the far side of the bed. “What are you doing here?” she asked when he opened his eyes.

“I assumed this would be more convenient in case you require assistance,” he explained and sat up in a fluent motion.

Natalie nodded, finding the statement actually sweet. “What time is it?”

“About noon.”

“I need to use the bathroom.” Natalie looked for her crutch.

“Do you require assistance?”

“No, thank you,” she assured him quickly. “But coffee and breakfast would be nice.”

After cleaning herself up at the sink, Natalie wrapped herself into her bathrobe and emerged from the bathroom. Slightly disappointed at the lack of freshly brewed coffee scent, she found Lacroix in the same position she had left him. “Well? Where’s my coffee?”

“I’m not your waiter,” he stated aloofly and picked her up to carry her downstairs into the kitchen. “Giselle has stocked up your supplies. I trust you will find something to prepare a meal?”

Natalie took a seat at the kitchen table. “Now would be a good time to repeat your offer of assistance,” she informed him.

She received a raised eyebrow in return. “Well?”

“You could heat up water. I drink my coffee with one spoon of instant and ––“

“––one piece of sugar,” he added. “I’m familiar with your preferences.”

“You are?” she asked, surprised and watched as he laid the table with bread, butter, and a variety of ham and cheese. When he placed the steaming mug of coffee in front of her, she took a cautious sip. “It’s good!” she proclaimed. “Tastes different, but very good.”

Lacroix flashed a smug smile. “I’ve taken the liberty of using honey instead of sugar.”

“I’m in no condition for any kind of action that results in you drinking my blood, that’s for sure,” she muttered and focused on her breakfast.

* * * *

After a few hours of napping Natalie decided to spend some time in the parlour. Lacroix carried her downstairs and while they approached the room, Natalie heard soft piano music. She smiled as she saw Nick at the instrument.

He stopped as they entered. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” Natalie replied while Lacroix placed her on the couch and adjusted several pillows around her. “That was beautiful, Nick. Please continue.”

“Does it not hurt your head?” he asked concerned.

“Not if it’s soothing.”

Nick continued to play light melodies while Lacroix moved about refilling Nick’s glass. Natalie observed that he casually squeezed Nick’s shoulder as he passed him. Then he moved to a cabinet in the corner of the room and retrieved a black box. Much to Natalie’s surprise he uncovered a violin. After tuning the instrument, he took a position facing Nick and began to accompany him.

Natalie listened in awe. No words passed between them and yet Natalie had the distinct feeling that they knew exactly how to play in perfect harmony. When they stopped playing after an hour, they still gazed at each other, apparently completely oblivious to her presence. Natalie broke the silence by applauding enthusiastically. Nick abruptly looked down and drained his glass.

“That was fantastic!” Natalie commented. “I recognized some pieces, but I was unfamiliar with the last one. That was beautiful!”

“Something Nicholas composed for piano and strings a couple of centuries ago,” Lacroix provided. “Few mortals have had the pleasure of hearing it.”

“Really? I feel so honoured.” She was amazed that Lacroix could obviously play it by heart without the need to look at sheet music. Even more she was astonished at the harmony palpable between Nick and Lacroix when they played. She wondered if it was possible to have more evenings like this when she came across.

* * * *

During the next couple of days Lacroix continued to hover. Natalie always found him in her room when she woke up. She found it increasingly unnerving that she hardly had any private moments. One evening she found him pacing the floor while she was in the bathroom, and decided to address the matter. “I appreciate your readiness, Lucius, but you really don’t need to wait in front of the bathroom door until I’m done within. If you’re worried that I might fall again, I’m not that clumsy.”

“It’s not your clumsiness I’m concerned about,” he stated. “I merely wish to avoid a repetition of history.”

“Really? Which century?” she laughed.

“The sixteenth,” Lacroix replied in a serious tone.

Natalie looked at him, startled. “I wasn’t even born then. What exactly are you worried about?”

“Nicholas. He has a tendency to kill what I consider to be mine.” When Natalie blanched, he elaborated. “There was a young woman whose blood I had sweetened with honey and wine over several weeks to prepare her. Nicholas killed her before I could savour my efforts. He claimed he wanted to save her from me and then it was him who couldn’t resist her flavour.”

Natalie pinched her nose to find relief from the upcoming headache that had started while she listened to this horrid tale. “Wait a minute; you sweetened her blood to prepare her for what?”

“For the taking, of course.”

“You wanted to bring her across?”

Lacroix chuckled. “No, Lisette was not the kind of woman one would wish to have around for all eternity.”

“So Nick did what you would have done anyway, and after 400 years you still hold it against him?” she snapped, not wanting to hear any more details of their past deeds.

Lacroix raised his eyebrow at her outburst. “I’m not holding it against him; I’m merely trying to prevent it from happening again.”

“If you’re so worried, why is he still here? Why don’t you send him away?” Natalie realized only now that she hadn’t spent time alone with Nick since her return from the hospital.

“I do not send my children away when they need me,” Lacroix stated.

“I haven’t noticed that he needs you. You’re constantly hanging out here.”

“And that bothers you?” Lacroix raised his eyebrow.

“As I said it’s kind of sweet, but a girl needs to be alone on occasion, especially when you keep reminding me of your victims. I need some distance.”

Lacroix frowned. “You’re acting highly illogically, my dear. I thought you favoured an open exchange over being kept in the dark as Nicholas preferred?”

Natalie’s eyes snapped up. “How do you ––?” she broke off at his raised eyebrow. “Of course, my blood. That’s totally unfair!”

“All you need to do is give your consent, and you’re free to savour mine,” Lacroix pointed out with an enigmatic smile.

Natalie was torn between fascination, curiosity and a degree of horror. Loving a vampire meant intimacy on a whole new level. She wasn’t sure if she was ready for that. “I think I could do without further horror tales for now,” she said evasively. “I have my check-up tomorrow at 4 p.m. Then I’ll hopefully get rid of this cast.” She pointed down her leg. “It’s about time I walk on my own feet again. Any suggestions how I can get to Avignon in the afternoon?”

“Jean can drive you. I’ll have him pick you up at 3:15.”

* * * *

When Natalie arrived at the hospital, there had been a delay due to an emergency. Natalie settled in for a long wait. Not wanting to keep Jean waiting, she sent him away and told him that she would call Lacroix when she needed to be picked up again, which probably would be after nightfall.

Four hours later Natalie sat on a bench in the cool autumn air in front of the hospital and waited for her chauffeur. She was in high spirits. Her CT scan had shown no anomalies and her cast had been removed. She had been told to take it slowly and still favour her foot, but at least she was able to walk on her own. When she had called the castle to arrange for a ride, Nick had been the one to pick up the phone. As she didn’t want to spoil her elated mood by getting car sick again, she readily accepted his offer to pick her up. She smiled as the orange Spider pulled up in front of the hospital.

“I’m so glad that you didn’t suffer any permanent damage, Nat,” Nick stated as he took her arm and helped her towards the car. “I felt so guilty about your accident.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Nick,” Natalie assured him. “I didn’t pay attention where I was going and slipped.”

“Still, it might not have happened if I hadn’t upset you before,” Nick insisted.

“Nick, stop berating yourself. I’m the only one who’s responsible for what happened.”

* * * *

After entering the hall, Natalie slowly started to ascend the stairs.

“May I?” Nick offered to carry her.

“Okay,” Natalie agreed. “Although I do need the practice.”

She smiled as Nick gently picked her up and carried her upstairs into the parlour. He sat her back on her feet in front of the couch, but remained holding onto her.

“Thank you,” Natalie breathed, realizing that she hadn’t been this close to him since her arrival in France. They had hugged briefly and they had danced, but even then he had held her at a greater distance than he was doing now. Remembering Lacroix’s warning, her heart rate increased as Nick continued to hold her gaze. Startled, she suddenly felt his lips on hers. Her first impulse was to push him away. Then she thought to savour the touch a moment longer. She knew from experience that Nick’s kisses never lasted as long as she would have wished. And it would provide her with a comparison to Lacroix’s kisses, so that she could be sure that she made the right decision.

However, instead of ending the kiss as Nick had done on previous occasions in Toronto, he intensified it. Natalie became tense as he tightened his arms around her and pushed her onto the couch. She tried to push him away, but her struggle only seemed to increase his passion. She caught a glimpse of golden eyes, as his lips left her mouth and wandered towards the side of her neck.

“Nick, don’t!” she managed before she felt his bite into her neck. She moaned as she perceived the erotic sensation that accompanied his greedy pull on her neck. As darkness was starting to claim her, the sensation stopped all of a sudden. The lethargy that had claimed her body ended with the dreadful noise of bones being broken. Then Lacroix’s smoldering eyes came into view.

“This is precisely what I wished to avoid,” he seethed.

Natalie knew she had no time for his fury as her senses were beginning to wane. Raising a hand, she brushed along Lacroix’s cheek. “Lucius,” she whispered weakly. “Finish it!”

“Are you certain that this is what you wish?” he inquired.

Nodding, Natalie turned her head to the side to give him access to her neck. The last she felt was his bite before she drifted into oblivion.

* * * *

“You will return to me!”

The irresistible command triggered her way back to consciousness. Her mouth was completely dry and her tongue felt like parchment. When a fluid dripped onto her lips, Natalie opened her mouth, welcoming the life-saving sustenance. Instinctively she reached for the source of the nectar and started to drink greedily.

“Enough for now,” Lacroix instructed and pulled his arm away. “Welcome back, my dear.”

Natalie sat up and tried to get her bearings. “I’m a vampire? I don’t feel any different.”

“After a day’s rest you will notice the benefits of your new state of being,” Lacroix assured her.

“I don’t know what came over Nick. He just bit me.”

“I warned you that he is unstable where your blood is concerned. You would do well to heed my warnings in the future.”

Natalie shrugged the sensation of menace off and became immediately defensive. “Well, I didn’t expect that he would attack out of the blue. What exactly happened? I heard bones cracking.”

“That was Nicholas’ neck, I’m afraid.”

Natalie gasped in horror. “You broke his neck?”

“I wanted to be sure that I was able to finish what he started without his interference. Do not concern yourself about him. He will come around in a few hours and then he will be insufferable for a while.”

“Then you’re not angry with him?”

Lacroix raised his eyebrow. “Why should I be? Although I had planned your conversion differently, Nicholas actually did me a favour. Your indecision about coming across was becoming tedious.”

“He took the decision from me,” Natalie frowned.

“Does it matter? Do you think you would have decided against joining me?”

“I’m not sure I was ready yet.”

“Such thoughts are immaterial now, my dear. You have eternity to get used to this.” He picked her up and carried her from the parlour. Natalie shivered as she caught a glimpse of Nick’s body on the floor, the head turned at an awkward angle.

Lacroix entered his room where he placed her onto the bed. “Sleep now. Tonight we will celebrate your entrance into my family.” He brushed his lips briefly against her temple. Natalie was asleep before he left the room.

* * * *

Natalie woke with a hunger she had never felt before. Sitting up abruptly, she noticed that the room was tinged in a red hue. Her senses centered onto a goblet in front of her. She snatched it and drained it instantly. After the seventh refill, she was beginning to feel normal again. Her red vision had disappeared and the hunger abated. Stunned, she examined the contents of the goblet. “What is this?”

“One of the best vintages from my cellar, human of course and quite fresh,” Lacroix informed her.

Taken aback, Natalie stopped raising the goblet to her mouth in mid-motion.

“The donation was voluntary and the donor is alive and well, if that is your concern,” Lacroix provided.

Natalie nodded in relief and took another cautious sip. “I would prefer drinking cow.”

“You may prefer what you wish; at this age your body is unable to process anything else but human. Therefore I suggest you quit any moral concerns right now.”

“But Nick ––“

“Nicholas was well over 700 years old when he attempted to switch to a permanent bovine diet. See where it has gotten him. Although he is back on human blood for the past five years, his control is still wavering. Do you wish to become a safety hazard to your mortal friends as Nicholas is or do you prefer to walk among them unfettered by their scent?”

Natalie swallowed and emptied the goblet again. “I prefer to keep them safe.”

“That’s what I thought,” Lacroix said smoothly and refilled the goblet.

“Is Nick alright? I need to let him know that I’m not angry with him.”

Lacroix raised his eyebrow. “He’s brooding in the parlour.”

* * * *

Nick looked up briefly from his position at the piano as Natalie stepped into the parlour before turning his back on her.

Natalie went over to him and touched his shoulder. “Nick, look at me.”

“I’m sorry, Nat. I never wanted this for you,” he said quietly.

“I know. But it’s what I wanted. I’m fine, really,” she assured him. “Eventually I would have chosen this.”

“I have desired your blood for so long, Natalie. When you were so close, I couldn’t hold back. I’m sorry,” he lamented.

“It’s okay. Lucius warned me that this might happen after you had tasted my blood when I fell on the stairs. He told me about the girl you wanted to save from him and killed instead. I’m glad he intervened before it came to that.”

Nick regarded her squarely. “He told you that?” When Natalie nodded, he continued, “Did he also tell you that he watched while I drained her?”

“What do you mean?” Natalie asked in confusion.

“He was there. He could have stopped me from killing her, but he preferred to watch me instead because that’s what turns him on. I’m pretty sure he could have stopped me from biting you, too.”

Natalie shivered. “Are you implying that he purposely let you almost kill me?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little convenient that he pulled me off exactly at the point of no return?” Nick said bitterly. “After a week of hovering over you and preventing me from being alone with you at all?”

Natalie stared accusingly at Lacroix who had silently entered the parlour. “Is that true?”

Lacroix merely shrugged and sauntered towards the fireplace. “You still lack a general understanding of chess, my dear. In order to achieve one’s goal, the strategy is to bring the target into a position without escape. I find a knight can be particularly useful in that regard.”

Natalie processed his meaning. “You mean you set us up, so that I would have no choice but to consent to coming across?”

Amused, Lacroix raised his glass in salute. “Checkmate, Dr. Lambert.”

FIN