Saturday, June 9, 2012
Saturday's Chapter - Wait Until Moonlight - Teri Thackston
“There are seven ladies waiting tonight, my lord.” Arthur stood in the library doorway. “Your mother asks that you join them in the ballroom.”
“Only seven?” Upper lip curling in displeasure, Nicholas Pierce poured himself a drink. “Mother is slipping. Last week there were twelve.”
Arthur did not respond. Nicholas didn’t expect him to. The aged butler was well schooled in servile comportment and knew when to keep his mouth shut.
But seven more women?
“Tell my mother I will be down when I’m drunk enough to tolerate her guests.” Raising his glass, Nicholas tossed a generous measure of whiskey to the back of his throat and swallowed without tasting it.
“Yes, sir.” The elderly butler closed the door.
Silence enshrouded Nicholas. But instead of peace, he felt the pall of guilt. He was hiding, shirking his responsibility as lord of the manor, Earl of Beaumarith, last in direct bloodline to the title. Duty required that he take a wife at the ripe age of twenty-seven and produce an heir.
His gaze touched his father’s chair standing empty near the stone fireplace and his jaw tightened. “Duty be damned.”
Scents of azalea and honeysuckle drifted into the library though the open terrace doors behind him, mingling with hints of leather and the lingering aroma of his father’s tobacco. Moonlight spilled through tall, paned windows to touch soaring book cabinets. But Nicholas took no pleasure in the comforting surroundings.
Refilling his glass, he faced the fireplace. Embers bored caves in a massive log and cast a glow across the large portrait that hung over the mantle. The painting was of Nicholas and his father, the late Earl of Beaumarith, Benoic Pierce. Firelight merged with moonlight to flush the images in ocher, highlighting the anger of one and grizzling the vibrancy of the other.
“Father.” Nicholas gazed into the eyes of his sire. “Must love hurt so?”
It was no fault of his. He’d been ready to wed, had treasured the illusion of a single, perfect love. Now, six months after Sara’s rejection, he still considered the fairer sex with the suspicion of one betrayed. If a woman wanted a man for his wealth, she should have the courage to tell him so from the start. Honesty, he could respect. Deception, he would not abide.
Feminine laughter drifted through the open terrace doors. Facing the night, Nicholas lifted his glass to salute the moon. “To the only lady a man can trust,” he said.
“Feminine trustworthiness is not all it is professed to be?”
Pausing with the rim of the glass against his lower lip, Nicholas closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. Fragrances of smoked peat and fermented barley filled his head, dulling his sense of outrage at this particular feminine intrusion.
Exhaling, he tilted the glass and slowly drank all the whiskey before lowering his arm and turning to face the newcomer. Satin folds of her white gown clinging to her exquisite body, Saffira slouched against his father’s chair, toying with a lock of her loose black hair. Her brilliant blue eyes sparkled like the jewel from which she had taken her name, and her lips, full and red, parted in seductive invitation.
Nicholas resisted with ease. “I believe young ladies are taught to knock before entering a gentleman’s study.”
Saffira painted lips curled at the corners. “I’ve heard that.”
Nicholas turned away as she uncoiled her body and moved forward.
“I was talking to Sir Lunsford a few moments ago,” she said. “He certainly seemed to enjoy my demonstration of sorcery tonight.”
“It’s that dress.” He stared at the night beyond the terrace. “Lunsford always did appreciate a flash of flesh.”
She stepped close to him. “Jealous?”
Nicholas jerked free of the suffocating warmth of her body. “Hardly!”
The dim firelight shimmered, as if the very air had been set astir. She laughed and darted in front of him.
“Really, Nicky, I shan’t bite you!” She touched his arm. “I wish only to give you that which a wife can give a husband. Marry me. Let us make true magic together.”
He stared at her hand where it lay upon his arm. Her fingers were long and white, unadorned, the nails colored with some pale, pearlescent paint that caught the firelight. That those digits could work magic of a sort, he did not doubt. Feminine magic. Carnal magic.
Raising his eyes to meet hers, he spoke quietly. “You would give me your lips?”
Her smile turned coy. “Willingly.”
“Your alabaster body?”
“Yes,” she breathed.
“And what of your heart, Saffira? What of mine?”
She laughed again, but the sound rang hollow in the night. “Oh, Nicky. It isn’t your heart that I’m after.”
“Perhaps ‘tis my heart I truly wish to give.” Weariness crawled through him. “And to gain a heart in return.”
A harsh change came over her features, as if the very Devil had taken a hand in shaping them. “You speak of hearts as if you possess one, Nicky. But you’re as heartless as that pitiful creature of darkness that roams the woods. Tell me…is it you?”
“You’ve heard the dark tales and yet you brave me in my den? You think much of your own powers, Saffira.”
“You would be wise to think much of them yourself.”
He set his empty glass forcefully on a nearby table. “And you would be wise to leave me in peace.”
“You are not at peace, my lord. You haven’t been since the night you learned the truth about your precious Sara.”
His hands balled into fists. “Do not speak her name.”
“Because my lips are not worthy of forming it? Or because its very sound grates upon your soul?”
Nicholas turned to the gallery door. Her latter statement was the true one. The pain that came from hearing that once-loved name gnawed at him like a rabid beast. “If you will not leave me, I shall seek my peace elsewhere.”
Saffira moved between him and the door. “At least consider my proposal.”
“I’m not interested.”
She touched his chest. “Don’t you see—”
“Don’t you see?” He thrust her hand away. “I will not make a business arrangement—or whatever you have in mind—at the marriage altar!”
Her face darkened. From beyond the terrace, he heard a sound like distant cannon fire.
Her voice dropped to a lower register. “And for what reason will you marry?”
He thought of his parents’ cold union, of Sara’s betrayal, and he answered Saffira with the truth. “For love.”
“Have you learned nothing from your parents, Nicky? Love is a myth! It is for commoners and mortals.”
“Mortal is all that I am, Saffira.”
Her gaze darted toward the portrait above the fireplace. “But an uncommon mortal. I know what runs through your veins. ‘Tis the blood of the Olde Ones. There is no other man alive with your bloodline. Join it to mine.”
Before he could move, she embraced him, pressing her wet lips to his. The taste of her was bitter and sticky-warm as blood, and her silken arms clamped around him like the sinewy coils of a reptile.
Stomach turning, he thrust her away once more. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, trying to remove the taste of her. “But I do know that I do not wish to be with you. Not ever!”
The air thrummed once more with that distant rumble.
“Do not think to cast me aside, Lord Pierce. I will not allow it!”
He tried to ignore the bile settling in his gut. “It is not for you to allow or disallow.”
“You underestimate me. That kiss, a simple chant…my spell will sway you.” She lifted one dark eyebrow. “And of course you wish to protect the village children from your mother and her investors. Accept my proposal and I will see that they are safe.”
Guilt slammed him. The children…he had been so consumed by grief that he’d neglected his father’s concerns about what went on in the coal mines. But this so-called sorceress had nothing to do with that.
“You take yourself too seriously, Saffira,” he said. “That kiss meant nothing and illusions will gain you no ground. Take your parlor tricks back to my mother’s party where they may be appreciated. Seek out Sir Lunsford if you want a man’s company.”
“Scoff ye not at old ways,” she warned. “Lest ye feel the wrath of old gods.”
Wind blasted through the terrace doorway, hot and dry, scattering the embers in the fireplace. A glowing brand flew upward then spiraled down to the leather seat of the late earl’s chair. The smell of burning hide scorched the air.
“As one who is dead, yet warm of flesh, walk ye within these walls.” Saffira extended her arms out to each side, palms up, glaring at Nicholas as she chanted. “Unseen. Unheard. Untouched. As on the breath of the wind, those round ye shall part as ye pass among them. Not by word spoken, set in ink or lead shall ye be known.”
Fine hairs rose on the back of Nicholas’ neck. Scowling, he shook off the sensation. “You don’t amuse me, Saffira.”
“As currents in a river, other lives round ye shall flow.”
Wind gusted in off the terrace, whipping up the embers in the fireplace once more. Lightning cracked.
Striding to the terrace doors, Nicholas pressed them shut. “Woman, if you must spout spells, at least make them rhyme!”
Thunder jostled the house so violently that books bounced on the shelves and furniture danced across the floor. A vase of roses teetered on a stand near the terrace doors. Nicholas lunged for it, catching the expensive crystal piece inches above the floor. Rose petals flew everywhere.
“Freedom lies in the light of the full moon and true love’s embrace.” Her voice rose and fell now, monotone abandoned for fury. “Only through consummation and the pledge eternal, beneath Diana’s full gaze, shall ye be freed. Until the pledge be made, I condemn ye to wander evermore within this living tomb!”
A brilliant, sizzling blaze filled the room. Throwing his free arm across his eyes, Nicholas staggered back. The heel of one boot, treading upon the silky petals of the fallen roses, slipped. Falling, he struck the back of his head on the door frame. The vase flew from his grip. As it shattered, the intensity of the storm centered inside his head, exploding with light and thunder.
Then, suddenly, all was silent.
Gingerly, Nicholas touched the lump on his head. Although it was tender, he felt no blood. Glancing around, he saw that he was alone.
“Witch,” he muttered, pushing himself to his feet. She’d nearly blinded him with that smoke pellet of hers. The scent of it still lingered in the air. And the vase…
He looked down at the shattered crystal. There would be hell to pay when his mother saw that!
The door leading to the gallery opened. Seeing the elderly butler, Nicholas gestured toward the fragments on the floor. “Get one of the maids to sweep this up.”
Arthur approached slowly, staring at the broken vase. He pushed at the larger pieces with the toe of one shoe, then raised his head and looked around. “Lord Pierce?”
Nicholas scowled. “Have you gone deaf, man? I said call someone to sweep up that mess!”
But Arthur stepped over the shards of crystal and crossed the library to the terrace doors. Beyond him, Nicholas saw that the night sky was clear. His scowl deepened. The thunder and lightning…what had happened to the storm?
Arthur stepped onto the terrace. “My lord, are you there?”
“I’m here, you fool.” Nicholas moved into the doorway. “Have you gone blind as well as deaf?”
Returning to the library, Arthur passed within inches of Nicholas. Angry, Nicholas snatched at the other man’s sleeve and, impossibly, missed.
“Well? Where is he?” Lady Charlotte Pierce appeared in the gallery doorway. “The ladies are growing impatient.”
Arthur stepped back over the broken vase. “I’m sorry, my lady, but the master must have gone down by way of the terrace.”
“Hang the ladies, Mother. I told you I would take no part in your matchmaking.” Nicholas strode toward her, boot heels ringing against the floor. “And as for children working in the mines—”
“To the stables, do you think?” She advanced farther into the room. Her full skirts shimmered as silver gray as her hair, not the mourning black of a recent widow. “To ride that beast of his?”
“It is possible, my lady. I shall send Ralf to see if Calon Crau is in the stable.”
Lady Pierce passed so close to Nicholas that he smelled her perfume. Still, she seemed oblivious to his presence. A chill began to creep over him.
“Tell Ralf to go quietly,” Lady Pierce said to Arthur. “If Nicholas has slipped away, I do not wish the fact made public.”
She gestured toward the broken vase and trampled flowers. “He probably broke that vase on purpose. He’s angry with me for arranging this party so soon after Benoic’s death.” Her voice fell to a murmur. “And for other things.”
Arthur, wisely, said nothing. Lady Pierce turned back toward the gallery door. Nicholas placed himself in her path, confident that she must walk directly into him. But as she drew closer, the air before him seemed to gain weight, pressing against him until he could not help stumbling backward. His treacherous legs did not stop until he backed up against the stone wall of the fireplace.
His mother paused beside the big leather chair. “Is this a burn?”
Joining her, Arthur looked at the scorched seat. “I believe so, my lady.”
Her upper lip curled in distaste. “Destroy the chair. ‘Tis an eyesore. With Benoic gone, there is no need for me to tolerate its presence.”
“Yes, Lady Pierce.”
With a rustle of satin, she was gone. Arthur followed more slowly, his gaze wandering once more around the room, whispering past Nicholas.
In that instant Nicholas knew that he stood unseen. The door closed behind Arthur. At the vibration of its closing, the last log fell in the fireplace. In the crackle of its fall, Nicholas heard a gentle echo of husky feminine laughter.