The Complete Chronicles


The Dead London Chronicles will be updated with a new chapter every Monday. If you would rather read the Chronicles from the beginning, look no further than this page... 

The story continues on 12th September!


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1

The sky had never seemed so blue, so bright, so full of promise, the evening sun a burnished gem high above a city that basked in its balmy glow. If not for imminent partings, long-dreaded goodbyes, it was a summer evening on which anything could happen, when dreams might come true, loves be confessed. 

It was the sort of night when hearts could break.

From where he stood on the edge of Salisbury Crags, Robert Faulkner was able to push away the thought of tomorrow's departure, of the long months until Christmas when he hoped his own summer might return to Edinburgh. Only then, with the coming of winter, would Hampshire let Alice Tyhurst return to him, the girl of sun and snow.

At the thought of her he turned slightly, knitting his hands behind his back as he leaned out into nothing, one foot on the edge of the cliff, the other precarious as it hung in mid-air.  For a long moment he stood silently, his gaze fixed on Alice as she worked at her sketchpad and then he looked to the valley, tottering buildings of the Old Town stretched out dark and forbidding far below, the New Town where he made his own home polished and pale beside its sibling.  

"One foot," he announced mischievously  feeling immortal as only a seventeen year old boy with the world literally at his feet could, "It feels like flying."  

"I wonder," she looked up to meet his gaze, a strand of golden hair blowing in the slight breeze, "What it would be like. To fly I mean." 

"Magical," he said, voice a gentle breath. "Would you like to?"

She considered a moment, before setting down her pad, getting to her feet to cross to just before where he stood. "It would make coming back here each summer easier for a start -- and it wouldn't have to just be summer either, I could fly back here whenever we wanted....."

"Do you think we might see you," he attempted to sound casual and failed, of course, "For Christmas?"

"I could ask Papa," her response was careful, considered, betrayed by a flicker of excitement in her eyes, "He might be swayed by the thought of painting the crags in the snow...."

Faulkner felt his heart jump in a way that it never did when she wasn't here, the thought of Christmas with Alice finer than any other celebration  could be. Without thinking he took her hand, as he must have hundreds of times in the years they had been friends, yet this time it was somehow different, somehow more.  Perhaps it was the sun in her hair, the warm breeze on his skin, the freedom... Perhaps it was just Alice. 

"Will you promise me something?" she asked softly, gazing up at him in that way that made it feel as if the world consisted only of the two of them.

"Anything," he told her without hesitation, knowing he would deny her nothing. 

"Promise me," she leaned closer, "That you won't fall off any cliffs? I would miss you terribly."

Faulkner returned his foot to solid ground, his heart beating wildly when he raised their joined hands to his chest and said, "I swear it on my life, Miss Tyhurst."

"I hope," she told him solemnly, hand warm and safe within his own, "That it never comes to that." 

The thought of not seeing her, those long months without her smile, their wanderings, hit him then and he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it very softly. She might pull away, he knew, but it was a risk that he was willing to take.

She did not, the gaze in those blue eyes softening as she regarded him, the world narrowing to contain nothing but them. "My boy...."

"That girl..." his voice was as soft as her gaze, the sun in her hair somehow enchanting him. Let him be the medical student tomorrow, the sensible lad, this evening he could be anything.

"Your girl...." she corrected, something in her gaze setting his heart pounding.

"Would my girl mind if her boy kissed her?" 

"Not," her voice was a soft whisper, "One bit."

It felt so natural out here on the edge of the world to slip his free arm around Alice's waist and draw her closer, the friendship that had grown and fostered since as long as he could remember now something else entirely. She was part of him, the other half of him, and whether he was seventeen or seventy, she would be the girl in his arms.

"You will always," she told him then, as if reading his mind, breath soft as she leaned up towards him, "Be my boy...."

"I would want no other girl,” was his whispered reply, his lips meeting hers a moment later. This, he told her silently, was the first of many such kisses, of a lifetime of nothing but happiness. Her free hand came up to rest against his shoulder, lips warm and soft beneath his own, held there for a long moment until something cold and fleeting touched against his skin. Even as another snowflake fell and another after that, Faulkner didn't let the kiss end. Snow in summer was nothing compared to this, to knowing that he loved this remarkable girl. 

"I will make sure," her voice was filled with conviction as they finally broke for air, her soft hand brushing a snowflake from his hair, "That I am here for Christmas...."

"For many more kisses..."

"Many, many?" 

"And then," he smiled, committing her face to memory for the months that were about to come, "Many more than even that."

"It's snowing," she observed belatedly, "You and your Scottish weather..."

"And my girl," he supplied the natural full stop to the observation with another kiss, the glittering jewel of her Christmas return already shining on the horizon.


2

What became of that boy who balanced on the cliff edge, Robert Faulkner could not say. Of the fate of the girl who did not return for Christmas nor another summer, nor see Scotland ever again, he could be more certain. Alice Tyhurst, the girl he knew from before he knew anything, the girl he loved and never told, had grown up that very year into Lady Alice Brandenburg, wife to a man far above the society doctor Robert Faulkner had since become. Now, with fifteen years from that kiss to tonight, he had lost that boy and his broken heart somewhere in time, somewhere on his travels, and he hoped never to see him again.

Why he had fallen into memories of the past as he approached Mishael de Chastelaine's country residence, Faulkner had no idea, but the past was not a place he wanted to be. As his carriage rolled to a halt he took a deep breath and composed himself into the dour, respectable man he had become.

It was what they expected, after all.

***

"I don't like this gown."

Mary Lambert sighed inwardly at the pronouncement that came after an hour of dressing, her mistress regarding herself critically in the glass. "Shall I fetch another?" 

"No," the answer came as she had known it would, the protest voiced only to air a general dissatisfaction with the night ahead and life in general. "No, there is no time. People will be arriving soon."

Mary nodded, carefully patting down a stray strand of her mistress's golden hair, the sound of carriage wheels audible in the distance through the open window. Without further ado she slipped a fine shawl around the other woman's shoulders, aware as she did so just how fragile she had become even in the last few weeks. "I am ready when you are, my Lady."

The eyes that met hers in the mirror were worn and listless, darting away after a moment. "Let us go." 

Mary nodded once more, moving to open the bedroom door. A few hours, she told herself, a few hours and it would all be over.

***

There was always, Mishael de Chastelaine mused, something. A house party to welcome the Prussian prince of something or other, a hellfire gathering with another fat duke... 

This weekend, though, it wasn’t a house party, it was the house party, the only invitation worth having in the whole of these Isles. This was a house party with the cream of society, where reputations might be made or broken and where Satan himself would welcome the guests, clad in his red silk, his ebony cane held in one elegant hand. 

How terribly dull. 

***

There was at least, Mary thought as she escorted her mistress down the expansive staircase, more than enough chance that the evening would not be a long one. A fit of the vapours or a headache and she would be relieved of her duties, free to retire once more after the customary tonics and powders were seen to. As if in response to her prediction, her companion paused at the final step, frowning as she brought her hand to her forehead, a frown marring her features. 

Mishael paused at the top of the staircase, unseen by the women below. He allowed himself a smile as he walked away, sure that what the lady really needed was a doctor. Perhaps she might find one at this most particular house party, where the devil held court, the wolves howled and blood and wine would flow as the days passed into night. With that rather pleasing thought he strolled along out of sight, the job of the host never done. After all, there were new arrivals to greet, a party to host and all manner of stories about to begin. 

Something made Mary turn then, perhaps a sound, or a shift in the air, looking upwards to scan the gloom. Finding nothing her eyes narrowed, breath held. The day was suddenly still, the birdsong silenced and then, as quickly as it and changed, normality seemed to be restored. Footsteps sounded along the hallway, a gaggle of guests making their stately way towards the ballroom to begin socialising and, Mary knew, her mistress' husband would not be far behind, the ride he had undertaken with the other men to discuss politics, brandy and the state of the nation surely drawing to a close now the afternoon was darkening into dusk. The evening held gaming and dancing, music and gossip, the days ahead chatter and hunting, needlepoint and improvement and all under the watchful eye of the finest names in London society. 

And Mary would be left to whatever devices she chose in the time that Alice did not need her most trusted retainer, her only trusted retainer. Left to her own devices in this palace in the wilderness, this part of the land where superstition had it that all manner of creatures might be found, even in a world where all manner of creatures were really nothing unusual.

Eventually  they could delay no longer and the party, as parties must, found its feet. With the doctor hidden away in the library with the quieter chaps in attendance and the ballrooms ringing with music and dancing, the night was alive with anticipation and laughter, the sound of swishing silk and the scent of fine perfumes. Not everyone's smile was as genuine as it seemed though and Lord Theodore Brandenburg gave a sigh of annoyance as he finally found his wife hiding herself in a corner of the veranda, as though she would rather be anywhere but here. 

"Here you are," he called lightly. "I though you had run back to London!"

"I am not fit to run anywhere," came the quiet response, one that was all-too familiar, "I have a headache." 

"Another?" He glanced over his shoulder and, spying a member of the royal household, took Alice's elbow, dropping his voice to a hissed whisper. "Sophia tells me you have hidden away all afternoon; you would do well to follow her example, she is the talk of the ballroom."

"I do not wish to be the talk of anywhere," came the pained reply, "I will call for Mary;  it is better if I retire--"

"You will do no such thing!" Ted's hand tightened on her elbow. "How will such a course reflect on me?" He drew her nearer, voice even lower. "We will go inside and you will chaperone your step-daughter, Lady Brandenburg, as any good mother would do at such an occasion!"

With the decision made on his wife's behalf, Ted moved away just lightly enough to affect the appearance that Alice wished to be alongside him. In fact she found she had no choice, his grip towing her firmly towards the noise and candlelight of the ballroom. 

The girl would not, Alice knew, wish to be chaperoned or anything of the sort, but she held her peace, lips pressed together tightly as they made their way into the crowded room. She did not wish to be there and longed for her bed, feeling a wave of resentment at the sound of her step-daughter's distinctive laugh floating across to greet them. At the sight of her stepmother and father, Sophia Brandenburg's Young face broke into a dazzling smile, her beauty never more than by candlelight. As she bobbed a curtsy to the duke who had been her dancing partner the pearls wound in her dark hair glittered, the rubies at her neck likewise.  Graciously accepting his farewell she tripped across the ballroom, dashing a kiss to the cheeks of both Ted and Alice. 

"How are you finding the party?" her stepmother enquired dutifully, wishing again for her room.

"I have barely had a moment to breathe!" The girl’s laughter tinkled musically and she reached out one pale hand to touch Alice's arm, "One less modest than I might find her head quite turned."

"Lady Brandenburg will join the wallflowers no doubt," Ted smiled, looking to the assorted mothers and chaperones gathered on the fringes of the room, "Whilst I while away the night on politics. Until tomorrow, ladies."

With a low bow he departed, leaving the women alone. Sophia turned her attention to her stepmother, eyes glittering as she said, "Go and sit, mama, I have gentlemen to dance with!"

"I do not doubt it," came the weary response, the girl with all her glittering youth and something else that was just beneath the surface striking a nerve. "Behave yourself, I will be watching."

"Always, mama," Sophia kissed her cheek and laughed, repeating, "Always," before she was gone, back into the fray.

The evening stretching out interminably before her, she took her place in the corner, expression one of polite and practised indifference as she watched the couples whirl and spin before her. It had been more years than she could remember since she had last danced, and even if she were so inclined, she had surely forgotten how.

Her stepdaughter, of course, had no such doubts and anxieties. It was she who commanded attention in her scarlet Italian silk, moving with confidence and a lightness of foot that neither father nor daughter ever tired of telling Alice was inherited from her real mother. 

That real mother, as Sophia was so fond of saying, was no mere painter's daughter, as Alice had once been. Her real mother was the daughter of one of the oldest families in Italy, blood so blue it was positively crowned; Alice should think herself lucky for becoming mother to this girl, and she was never allowed to forget it. She should think herself lucky at least, she supposed, that it was only a step-daughter, that her husband's wish for an heir had never been granted.

Yet that stepdaughter could be... Challenging. Hot tempered, spiteful even, though you would not know that now as she fluttered across the floor on the arm of a duke who should know better.  Alice  hoped against hope that she would not have to intervene, the thought of a scene further increasing the pounding in her head. And scene there would be, the young lady, as she knew from painful experience, not one to take well being thwarted.

If it were anyone else she would do nothing, would pretend not to notice, but the thought of Ted learning that his daughter had danced with one of the most notorious rakes in London as his wife looked on... the thought of the punishment that would follow sent a chill up her spine. As Alice looked to the couple, Sophia's dark eyes met her stepmother's gaze, glittering with dark mischief as she took the hand of her rakish companion.

Her own eyes narrowing, she got to her feet, gesturing for the young woman to come to her, knowing even as she did so that the request would go unheeded. It was just as Alice had suspected of course, her gesture ignored and Sophia's lips, full and rouged, quirked into a smile before she spun flamboyantly into the dance, her head thrown back with merriment.

She had no choice now, Sophia had seen to that, and she advanced towards the dancers, feeling eyes on her, far too aware of herself, utterly out of place. Still, painting on what she hoped was a look of confidence she met Sophia's gaze as she approached, the younger woman's expression changing into a subtle warning, a threat that this might not end happily. 

"Might I have a word?"

"After this dance, mama," was the sing-song reply, "The gentleman is telling me of his adventures in Rome!"

"I would like to speak with you now, if you please," her voice hardened slightly, further aggravated by the smirking Duke close by, "I am sure the gentleman will understand." 

"Of course," Sophia's companion's voice was laced with unctuous, ingratiating gentility and as he released the heiress's arm the younger girl's smile, beautiful as ever, froze in place like a glacier. If she felt annoyance she showed no outward sign and inclined her head towards Alice, voice a cool whisper when she finally spoke.

"Think of your nerves, step-mama," was the hushed warning. "Perhaps you should absent yourself before I tell papa you are in need of your medicine."

"I was told to watch you," she kept her own voice level, fighting the feeling of dislike that so often came upon her in Sophia's presence. "Your father would not be pleased if I allowed such behaviour." 

"And he would be even less so," the girl told her with customary sweetness, "Should I tell him how you are embarrassing our family by creating such a scene as this."

"There is no scene--" Alice’s voice rose with the words, eyebrows raised from those nearby.

"Lady Brandenburg," the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough was at Alice's elbow, smoothly plastering over the small cracks that threatened the evening and the days ahead, should they split open, "I shall gladly serve as the young lady's chaperone, if you wish to retire."

"I would not see you put at any inconvenience--" 

"It is none," was the woman's kindly response and she watched Sophia with a smile of unbridled affection as the beauty swirled back into the dance, this time to join a far more salubrious partner. "Our youngsters can be heady sometimes, Lady Brandenburg; please, go and gather your thoughts."

She was, she realised, being dismissed. Perhaps they were right, perhaps she was the one causing a scene after all. With a murmur of thanks she turned for the door, causing further consternation as, turning too quickly, she narrowly avoided walking into a dancing couple. Murmuring apologies she hurried away, certain she could hear whispers as she went.


3

If only fate had smiled down on Alice and dismissed her from the ballroom thirty seconds earlier, she might have found a very different path. For at that very moment Robert Faulkner, the boy lost to her half a lifetime ago, had passed that very doorway in his search for some respite from all this society, from the cooing ladies who adored their doctor, the men who cared only for politics and the voluptuaries of both genders who sought some cure for their gout. He was not a man for noise and dancing, not anymore, not since her, he wanted only peace, escape, solitude. Where he would find it in a house so full as this, where his very room was assailed by desperate patients of all stripes, was another matter.

As it was, she found herself in the gilded hall, frantic and flustered as she told herself she could escape now, make her way upstairs and plead her usual infirmity. Between herself and the stairs however was an effusive countess bearing down on her, and with mounting desperation she turned, seeking refuge through the nearest doorway.

Escape. Wonderful, peaceful escape... a library, the sort of place where Faulkner, cup of tea in hand, could happily hide himself away from those who plagued him until the halls fell silent and he might go about his real business. He was about to settle in an almost too luxuriant armchair when he heard the sound of the door handle turning, which elicited a groan of annoyance from the doctor. There really was nowhere to hide in here, nowhere, that is, other than the heavy damask drapes that hid the windows.

The room was, Alice realised with relief, empty. She thought for a moment to lock the door behind her but soon dismissed the idea at the thought of the trouble it must surely result in. The scent of flowers from the garden beyond struck her as she surveyed her resting place, the sudden urge to escape yet further and to hell with the consequences hitting hard. She would not of course; she would only slip behind the drapes to peer out, breathe in the scent of the pleasures denied to her. With that she pulled back the opulent fabric, slipping behind and out of sight.

For a man so firmly rooted in the here and now, the prosaic, the business of the day, Faulkner was a little caught by that same fragrance of the blooms that swayed in the gentle evening breeze through the polished panes. He paused, teacup raised to his lips, every nerve-ending suddenly and vibrantly alive to the presence of another, yet there was none of his usual inner-disappointment that his solitude had been stolen, only the sense of this being the moment in which life had somehow changed.

All of this passed in a second and he barely noticed it as it did, yet he turned very slightly, lowering the cup as his bright blue eyes alighted on the new arrival.

"My apologies--" whatever else she might  have uttered died on her lips then, eyes widening. "Oh my--" She had, she knew, finally lost her mind, the mental instability everyone so feared finally claiming her.

The doctor was in turn speechless, not quiet, not reserved, just utterly without words. The tea cup fell from his hand, the dregs that remained within seeping out onto the priceless rug where it landed as he wondered what was in those leaves he had brought back from India.

"I'm sorry, I should--" the world spun alarmingly as she stared at the vision before her.

It was a matter of professional pride and necessity that Robert Faulkner, tall, quiet, thoughtful and utterly unaware of the effect he had on his noble patients, had become well-used to catching  the swooning ladies of fashionable Europe. After he caught them was another matter, of course, and if they were hoping to be swept off their feet they instead found themselves supplied with a tincture of something or other and presented with a more than generous charge. 

In this case though his concern was more than professional, hands shaking even as he took a step forward and caught Alice about her narrow waist, snatching her neatly from the fall. She felt unreal there beside him, looked it too, tired and drawn despite the golden hair and the beauty he had dreamt of more times than he could count.

This was the girl who ran, the girl who mocked... this was the girl who froze his heart.

"Robert--" the name fell from her lips unbidden, her hand clinging to him, heart hammering harder 

"Hello," the whispered word was ridiculous, unbidden, helpless and inwardly he felt the heart that he thought frozen blanch and beat.

"Hello," the word was a breathless whisper, certain that she was drowning, falling, unable to tear her gaze away.

His arm was stronger around her than it had been in his youth, the tall, skinny boy rather more a man now and he held her with a confidence that belied his own confusion. This was not him, not the doctor entrusted with the health of the house of Hanover, with any number of illustrious patients and secrets of the realm, this was not the Robert Faulkner he had tried so hard to become.

Her hand lifted unbidden to his face, memories surfacing of years before, of a girl who she had thought dead - who surely was dead now, because there was no other explanation for this vision now, either that or she was mad, utterly mad. 

For the briefest moment his bright blue eyes closed, lips parting slightly to allow him to murmur, "You swooned..."

"I was going to escape out the window," she heard herself whisper, "Am I going mad?"

Faulkner's first instinct, born out of good breeding and gentlemanly conduct, was to actually glance at the window as though he might be able to help, as though it was as simple as preparing a poultice or splinting a bone. Less than a second later though he found his voice, not recognising it as the stern, serious tone that was so familiar to those who knew him, but a little light-headed, almost shaky.

"What are you escaping from?"

"Everything," she laughed then, the sound humourless and unnaturally high, "Have they sent you to torment me?"

Torment her... the words stung more than they should after so many years, recalling too clearly the mocking tone of her last letter, her dismissal. Faulkner told himself that he did not even hear it, that it did not pain him even as it was a knife in his ribs. He had survived physical tortures that hurt less than the letter that was still inscribed on his soul and even now she pushed, that strange laughter ringing in his head.

"I meant only to prevent you from falling," was his careful reply, "I was sent by no one."

"Was it him?" she continued as if she hadn't heard, "Or is this the girl's doing? It is cruel, oh how very cruel!”

"I am sent by no one," was Faulkner's assurance, his anger beginning to melt in the face of her obvious distress. With one arm still protectively around Alice's waist he drew a silver flask from his coat and offered it to her, urging, "Drink."

"What is it?" her voice was tinged with suspicion, the lesson to trust nothing one she had learnt the hard way.

"The late king of France's favourite brandy, but don't hold that against me" he managed a slight, awkward smile.

Alice took the flask before she had even fully realised, expression almost defiant as she took a deep swig, spluttering a moment later. He wanted to say something, but what? What could he say that she could possibly want to know, that might hold her interest? No, he reminded himself, he was not that lovesick boy now, he neither sought not wanted the interest of any woman, least of all this one. 

"I do not often," Faulkner finally confided, "Hide behind curtains."

"Then why are you here?" she demanded, taking another swig, "God, if they find us--"

"I'm here-" To assuage my guilt? Because I lost myself somewhere and need to make amends for those I let down? "Because I needed a moment away from society."

Society!”

"Why are you climbing through windows?"

Because, she suddenly wanted to tell him, because I cannot stand the thought of being in my own life one moment longer. "A need for air--"

"If I open the window will you promise not to jump out?" Faulkner was glad for her words, suddenly needing air himself, his head swimming.

"No one would care if I did," she declared, wondering where the words came from, the usually perfectly composed mask torn asunder, "It would be what they expected!" 

"I would care," he looked down at her, suddenly painfully aware of how much he had changed in the years, how much he had loved her and how she had left him wrung out, hollow, "Because I'd fall out too."

She had no response to that, managing after another sip of brandy, "Well!"

Faulkner moved forward a little, free hand closing around the window sill and levering it open a good few inches. The scent of the flowers assailed him again, fragrant and sweet. 

"Do you remember--" 

"I remember every second," he admitted, "Every summer."

"I shouldn't be here--"

He knew then it was he who shouldn't; that Alice Brandenburg, the poised, dignified wife of a decorated nobleman had more right to be in this place than he would ever have.  "Forgive me, madam," the words were formal, yet the tone betrayed more pain than he would have wished, "I shall summon your maid."

"No!" her eyes were wild then, hand gripping his arm with sudden strength. "No, please, don't - you must help me--"

"Alice!" Concern jolted through him, every fibre of all that he was focused on the obvious distress, the terror in her gaze. "What's wrong?"

"Help me--" She broke off at the sound of the door opening beyond, voices filling the air. He pressed his finger to his lips, drawing her closer behind the curtain. She could feel her heart hammering, his closeness and the impending peril stealing her breath, grip tightening.

It was a man and woman, their voices lowered in whispers of mirth and something more, the promise of a stolen assignation. Faulkner was unmoving, catching the floral fragrance again and her face was pressed nearly against his shoulder, the small space stifling, the scent of flowers and the brandy leaving her more dizzy than ever. Unmoving, still as marble he held her closer, the threat of discovery somehow intoxicating.

Some more laughter, followed before sounds of a decidedly more intimate nature, then the woman declaring, "Not in here, the books are looking at us!" Her companion gave a murmur of agreement and then the door opened and closed again, leaving them once more alone. 

The woman's sentiment, innocent and intimate all at once, provoked the ghost of a smile from the doctor, yet it was chased away by the memory of Alice's heartfelt plea for help. Alone again he addressed her urgently, meeting her gaze with his own and seeing only exhaustion, desperation where once there was a vivid fire.

"How can I help you?"

"You can't," she realised then, cursing herself for the momentary weakness, for the added danger she now brought to herself as she pulled from his grasp, "Forget that I spoke - I must go--" 

"Please-" Faulkner began, reaching for her hand again, "Alice--"

"I must go," she repeated, "I'm sorry." With that she pushed out through the curtains, stumbling but managing to right herself as she hurried for the door.

"Will you be here tomorrow?" The thought of what she might do, the desperation in her expression, had struck too deep. "Don't run away!"

"We leave in the morning," the words were rushed, and then the door pulled open, Alice gone a moment later.

And his heart was torn out again. Just like that, after all these years spent losing that boy, closing off the emotion, becoming Faulkner, he was undone by the girl who broke him in two. 

He turned back to the window, telling himself that her plea for help was another game and yet he knew somewhere in him that it could not be, that whatever had passed between them, she was not so cruel as that, that the pain in her eyes, the pallor and exhaustion in her face, would not lie. 

"Damn,"  the word was a hissed whisper, his forehead resting momentarily on the cool glass of the window, the fragrance of flowers heady. He would help her, of course, because he would help anyone in need no matter what he tried to tell himself, and maybe he would get his flask back too.


4

Out in the hall Alice clutched the flask to her chest, too late now to return it, panic rising as she heard the sound of her husband's voice in the distance. His tone was the one so rarely addressed to her, cheery, friendly, full of warmth and humour. This was the other Ted, the one he showed the public, his daughter, anybody but his wife. Could she make it to the stairs, or even the ballroom without attracting his attention? She hesitated, frozen with indecision, heart pounding afresh at the risk of discovery.

Other male voices accompanied his, loud, braying, bragging, discussing the business of the day and the hunt of tomorrow. They were a world from the soft Edinburgh burr of Robert Faulkner, her boy. Reaching a decision she bolted for the stairs, the flask clutched tightly in her hands as she made her escape.

"One never carps over a lost wager," she heard Ted laugh warmly, "I shall have made twice that in a day's business, after all!"

With her husband's voice ringing in her ears Alice took the stairs at an utterly destroyed undignified pace, not stopping until she was back in the room in which she had dressed, a lifetime ago it seemed now, before Robert Faulkner had re-entered her life. Her first move was to hide the flask, burying it deep in her trunk, wondering as she did so how she was going to get out of this predicament.

She prayed that he would be occupied with the other men tonight, that he would not come to her in a temper or worse, in a passion. Over their years of marriages Alice's had learnt that it was her place to receive both without complaint yet as she heard a heavy tread in the hallway outside the door of her room, she held her breath, waiting for it to pass. The steps did not pass though and there was a gentle knock at her door before it opened, admitting Theodore Brandenburg to the room.

The flask was hidden, she told herself, and no one had seen her in the library save for Robert Faulkner. "The Duchess insisted on watching Sophia--"

"Of course," he said placidly, closing the door and turning to greet her with a mild smile, "I would choose no other, my dear."

That smile, so reassuring on the face of any other, froze the blood in her veins, her gaze fixed on him as she took a careful step back, the smile on her own lips fixed and rigid.

"One looks at women like Lady Spencer, Lady Marlborough, those good wives," he went on, smile hardening, "And then one wonders what possessed me to take your hand, Lady Brandenburg, when there were so many more moral, less... troubled candidates. I will not have you embarrass my daughter, my girl, how dare you try show her up as you did?"

"She was dancing with someone quite inappropriate--" 

"If you had been doing your duty as a stepmother, she would not have had the opportunity to do so," Ted shook his head slowly, thin lips disappearing for a moment as his teeth worried away, "Miss Sophia is an innocent, she is prey to all manner of predators."

"Miss Sophia--" she caught herself a moment too late, ducking her head as she cursed her wayward tongue. "Of course. I am sorry." 

"That girl is all you are not and never will be!" His voice was rising in heat and volume at the slight to the child in whom he saw nothing but piety. "How dare you come to this house and make a fool of me?"

"I did not mean---"

"Tomorrow, I think we must call in my doctor as soon as we arrive home," the threat was implicit, the treatments for her nerves brutal and merciless, "You are subject to brain fevers once more, it seems; this time, I will ask him to attempt blistering... You have been too indulged."

"I only asked to speak with her," her voice was hushed, pleading, "It was not meant to happen the way it did, I swear it---"

"Perhaps," he lashed out a hand to seize her wrist, "We shall have him return to the weekly bleeding, to cool that temper."

"No--" she tried, and failed, to move out of the way in time, the cruel, hard fingers closing in, knowing just where to press to hurt. "No, please--"

"I have just agreed to some business in Ireland," Ted’s grip closed around her wrist and he pushed her back hard, Alice's back colliding fiercely with the carved edge of the mantle, "I will be gone a month or more; I believe it will be in your interests to have you confined during my absence, madam."

She bit back a cry, knowing from experience that to be quiet was the best course of action now, biting her lip hard as she focused on a point beyond his shoulder, concentrating on each breath, in and out.

"Do you know," he drew her close again, "Who is here tonight?"

He couldn't know, couldn't possibly, and she kept her expression frozen as she told him, "Lots of people -- too many to name...."

"The Prince of Wales," was his reply, "I have courted his money too long for you to shame me!"

"Then I shall stay up here," she decided hopefully, "Out of the way. So I don't ruin things for you." 

He was looking over her shoulder though, face twisted into a frown of disgust before he reached out and drew his fingers along the edge of the mantle where Alice's back had hit it. After a moment he brought his hand round to show blood on the pale fingertips and then he moved quickly, twisting her round to look at her gown. 

"Your dress is torn!" Ted's voice was furious. "You take no care-- can you not even stand without falling, woman?"

"I didn't--"

She was silenced when he threw her across the room as though she were a discarded newspaper, barely glancing to her when he called, "Have your maid mend that gown, madam, by the time the morning comes!"

She bit back the words that, even now after so many years, were too quick to spring to her tongue, focusing instead on pulling the breath into her lungs, glad at least that she was unable to cry. The door closed with a slam, Ted's voice as cheery as ever as he greeted his companions and went off about his business with the future king of England, every inch the soul of the party.

"Damn you," the words finally left her lips in a whisper, too late to do her further harm now, "Damn you to hell." 

***

Theodore Brandenburg paused in the hallway outside the room he shared with Alice, drawing in a long, deep breath as he forced down his anger at her behaviour, her foolishness, her... willfulness. These near fifteen years of marriage had been nothing but a carousel of lunacy and hysteria, vapours and starvation, of a wife who dangled her money over him like the sword of Damocles, the implicit threat that she might withdraw it unspoken but ever-present. Something must be done, and done soon, he decided, as he stalked along the hallway; a placed must be found for her.

"Brandenburg!" A voice accosted him then, snapping him out of his thoughts, "I know its snowing, but you're looking like someone has died!" 

"What's that?" He turned in place to greet Charles Derville, the heir to the Buckingham dukedom’s thin face showing a cool smile. 

“You look like," the man repeated, cheerful and, Ted thought, looking far too pleased with himself, “Someone just died."

"My wife..." Ted shook his head. "You know how they can be."

"No," came the laughed response, "No I don't. And I won't either, because my wife won't be like that, will she?"

“Sophia will make you a fine duchess,” This time there was no doubt in Ted’s words and he gestured to the staircase, “Let us share a drink and discuss business, your Grace; and daughters.”


5

Snow in summer, Daniel Miller reflected as the carriage travelled on, was about the measure of things tonight. Snow in summer, a dandy vampire who took so long to dress that they were late for the devil's house party, a blood drinking child who clearly hated everyone except that dandy playwright, a poodle with boundless barks... If not for the stunning woman with the flame red hair on his arm, he might well be tempted to abandon the trip and walk back to London. Yet the playwright was good company, the dog sweet enough and even the girl oddly amusing, so perhaps things weren't so bad. 

They had passed a village a little while back,  as the snow began to fall in earnest, and he wondered now if they should have stopped there, should have admitted the folly of this yet on they had pressed and now... Well, now the world had turned white. 

With that thought he turned his head to study Lucile's face for a second, the pale beauty, the ethereal something that seemed oddly suited to this particular landlord, the lad from the wrong side of town in Arbroath. Hardly caring for the Frenchman and little girl who sat in the squabs opposite, Dan kissed Lucile's cheek and said, "Snow in July... Do we blame the devil?"

"I would sooner," came the lofty reply, though the expression she had for him was, he was sure, one of nothing but affection, "Blame the French. But each to their own."

"All of you people blame us!" Renaud opened an ornate painted fan with a flick of his wrist, batting it against Lucile's knee. "We French bear the brunt of your British nonsense!"

"He touched me," Lucile told Dan with clear shock, "With a fan!" 

Renaud's rouged lips formed into a playful pout and he batted Dan's knee in turn and said, "A matching one for you, sir!" With that he turned and, in a cloud of perfume, scooped the little girl onto his lap and asked, "What say you, choux, of summer snow?"

Before she had a chance to speak, however, the carriage lurched to a sudden halt and, too close for comfort, the howl of a wolf rent the air. With a frown, Dan leaned forward, his hand straying to the pistol concealed beneath the seat. 

Lucile's lips drew back in a snarl, fangs visible as one hand came to rest on Dan's arm, the young girl likewise moving closer into Renaud's arms.

From without the coachman's voice could be heard, raised in exasperation and calling that he had had quite enough of this nonsense. Even as Dan went to open the door the sound of buckles and harness could be heard and the landlord told his fellow travellers, "I'll see what the trouble is; Monsieur, you let no harm come to my lass while I'm gone!"

"I am not," Lucile looked distinctly horrified, "Letting you leave me in here!"

"Two minutes..." He promised.  "That's all."

"What if something eats you?"

"Two minutes..." Dan repeated. "And nobody eats a landlord!" 

If Lucile had any complaints, which she no doubt did, Dan didn't hear them as he slipped out of the vehicle and into the pitch black night, the snow falling heavily all around. Even as he approached the horses he knew exactly what was happening, the coachman there frantically unharnessing one of the lead animals, his breath visible in the air.

"What're you up?" The landlord asked in his usual chipper tone, even as he felt his temper surge as much as it ever did, which wasn't much, at the thought that the man he had paid to see them safe to the party was about to up and take off. "You're not abandoning us, mate?"

The coachman glanced at him, face white with fear, and Dan felt his annoyance abating at the very expression in his eyes. His voice, when he replied, was hushed, shaky. "We'll not get there by daybreak in this and I'm not being stuck out in the night with a coach load of vampires for any amount of coin." The driver abandoned his work for a moment to fumble at his belt and hold out his purse to Dan. "I'm not a dishonest man; take your money back, I want just this one horse and I'm away back to the village. They won't take their kind back there, I'm sorry, I've kids at home--"

Dan nodded, well-used to this kind of fear outside of the city, this sense of the terror lurking in the shadows. It got into villages like this, places where a stranger was to be viewed with suspicion, and ate away at the residents. The very thought of bloodsuckers and werewolves caused them to bar their doors as dusk fell, to act on fear, to see only death and terror when they caught a flash of the white skin, the too sharp tooth. Such things held no fear for him, of course, the adventurer, the rogue; after all, he'd hardly share his bed with Lucile if they did.

"Away with you and keep the cash," Dan told him kindly, moving to help unharness the horse. "Back to your hearth; I'll see this lot safe." 

The man's thanks were all too obvious and soon the job was accomplished and the coachman was on his way, bound for the safety of the village that they had passed, the village that would offer no shelter to vampires.

"Something," the child in the carriage remarked loudly from the playwright's lap, "Is going to eat him."

"He is strapping," Renaud whispered in reply. "Nothing would better that chap... If he couldn't fight his way out, he'd talk his way out instead."

"He'd not," the girl insisted, "Talk me round!" 

At that moment the door opened and Dan pokes his head into the carriage, ruffling the snow from his black hair. He offered Lucile a wink and asked, "Anyone want to ride up front? I'm driving from here!"

"Yes." The red-haired woman exclaimed immediately, "I will take what is out there a thousand times over what is in here!"

"Choux?" Renaud looked to Grace. "What will you do?"

"I," the girl declared with a glare for Lucile, "Will stay here with you."

"Come on then, gorgeous," Dan held out a hand to Lucile, "Come and keep me warm up front."

With a toss of her head she took his hand, telling him seriously, "I will keep you warm everywhere."

"Sir, young miss,"  the Scot bowed low, glad at least that the snow had started falling before they left London, giving him enough time to bundle up in his warmest coat, "We shall see you when we get there." With that he helped Lucile down and closed the door before walking with her to the front of the coach and peering up at the driver's seat. "Up you hop, young postilion!"

The jump she made was decidedly more than a human could achieve, Lucile utterly unruffled as she settled into her seat. "Do you need a hand?"

His hand ready to slap her bottom as she climbed up, Dan gave a comical pout and told her, "You've just ruined my night!"

"I could make it a lot better," she told him, wide eyed, "When you get up here."

That was enough to spur him into action and Dan climbed up nimbly to take a place beside Lucile, pecking a kiss on her cheek. Even as he let his lips press to hers he lifted the reins, sure that they must make it to the house tonight, whatever happened.

"You think," she asked, "That we can make it?"

"We have to," was his reply. "The village back there won't shelter vampires and we're closer to de Chastelaine's do than we are to London... so on we go!"

"The carriage," she pointed out the obvious," Would hardly be sun proof."

The thought had occurred to him, had chilled him and he replied, "The snow's thick on the road... I reckon we stop if we see anywhere we can hide out."

"You are worried," the frown on her face deepened, "But I have faith in you."

"I never worry," he kissed her again, the horses starting on their way, "It gets a man nowhere."

She gave no answer to that, settling back beside him, keen eyes watching for dangers in the snow-covered distance. Her eyes, keen with a supernatural zeal, watched the empty countryside, saw no trace of the wolf that had howled, nor of any other hazard that might befall them. All there was was emptiness, the still, deep dark.

They travelled in silence for a good while, though her presence was as palpable as any words, and he wondered not for the first time if she was as acutely aware of everything about him as he was of her.

There was something in her closeness, the very sense of her, that seemed as warm as the snow was cold. The fire that blazed in Lucile Wyatt, the fierce passion, showed in her eyes, her touch, her very proximity. They would reach safety tonight, he told himself, if his very life depended on it.

"If anything happens," her voice was just as fierce when she finally spoke, "You look after yourself."

"I'll look after all of us, Lucy."

"That," her response was quick, "Is what I'm afraid of."

"My girl," Dan smiled, narrowing his eyes as he did his best to search the empty road ahead, "Don't you fret, gorgeous."

"I never," he heard the pout that accompanied the words, "Fret."

"That French lad... our playwright," he couldn't help a slight laugh, the celebrated farceur from Rouen one of his most loyal patrons before his death and even after, "He wears more slap than you do!"

"He needs it," came the tart reply, "I do not."

"One day he comes into the pub coughing up his consumptive lungs, the next he swans in with a full set of fangs in his best silks," Dan shook his head at the memory, at the celebration that accompanied the dying playwright's sudden leap from tuberculosis-ridden phantom to vampire, "And you know he's still never used them!"

"I know," his companion sniffed, "He is giving us a bad name."

"Him and that little girl of hers... Is she his daughter? The lass, not the poodle."

"Her?" Lucile's response was light, "Oh, do not trouble yourself over that girl."

Dan gave a nod, realising now that he couldn't see a thing, that the snow was blinding both him and the three remaining horses. This wouldn't do, he knew, they had to find shelter.

"There," Lucile suddenly declared, pointing into the white, "There is something over there."

"Is it likely to eat me?"

"Shelter," she clarified, even as another wolf howl sounded.

"You'll have to direct me, I can't see a bloody thing..."

Her hands closed over his then on the reigns, and he hoped the horses wouldn't bolt even as she told him, "Bear left, not too far or we'll be in a ditch."

Dan was glad for her touch, the skin cold against his own and he let Lucile guide him, trusting her implicitly. Another howl broke through the air then, followed closely by another, Lucile urging the horses on faster than they should be going in such conditions, though the need to do so was abundantly clear. The shape of the barn as it emerged from the blizzard was as welcome a sanctuary as a chapel to a sinner and Dan found himself adding his own voice to spur the horses on, the darkness too deep around them. The animals sensed something in the air too, the poodle yapping frantically inside the carriage as the steeds at the head of the carriage snorted and whinnied, eyes wide.

"We mustn't," Lucile insisted unnecessarily, "Stop!"

"If anything happens," he heard himself say, heart racing, "You three take off, don't hang around."

Her hand closed over his more tightly in response, and it might have been his imagination, must be, that conjured up the sound of snapping teeth in the distance. If it was, though, why did the dog bark louder, the horses eyes roll back, their ears flattening in terror, foam at the bits?

"Get as close as we can..."

"We're not leaving the horses outside..."

"There's no time!" The thought of leaving these terrified creatures to whatever was chasing them left Dan filled with the sense that it was simply wrong, that, idiotic as it sounded, he couldn't subject the loyal creatures to  such a fate. "Take the whole thing in," Lucile's solution to the situation was surely as insane as the idea of leaving the animals was unbearable. It was, however, the only one that made sense and he cracked the reins hard, giving a shout of encouragement as the open door of the barn yawned before them, praying that the carriage would fit through. It must, Dan prayed, because it felt as though every devil in hell was on their tail.

They passed through with barely an inch to spare, the sound of grinding mingled with shrieks from inside the carriage as he dimly wondered whether they would be able to stop.

"Pull them up!" Dan instructed Lucile, relinquishing the reins to her before, with something that was either bravery or stupidity driving him on, he leaped from the seat, hitting the straw-covered barn floor with a bone-jarring thud. There was no time to think of aches and pains though, the howls outside growing louder, pinpricks of red piercing the darkness as he scrambled to his feet and made for that door, too wide open now.

It all happened at once; the shuddering halt of the carriage, the threatening shapes too close for comfort, and then the door heaving shut, some power somewhere smiling on them as without it surely they would have been done for. With a bang the door closed, the bar falling into place and Dan finally allowed himself to catch his breath, his back pressed to the rough wooden surface that had saved them. He looked to the vehicle as it stood, heard the panicked breath of the horses and announced, "Well, that was fun!"

Lucile was before him in a moment, the fear of the last few moments chased away by a decidedly enthusiastic kiss. This was more fun, of course, but the chase had left his heart hammering, adrenaline coursing through him. It was like the old days all over again, racing from danger on the continent with that supposedly dour doctor, it was living.

"You saved us...."

"A hero indeed!" Renaud's voice was a little harried, a little high but full of gratitude as he opened the door of the carriage. "I would kiss you myself but the lady would not approve."

"Find your own hero," Lucile agreed, lips against Dan's again with no care to being observed. She found no complaint from him, of course, only the wish that they were alone in this suddenly very warm barn, that there was not a shrieking Frenchman, a yappy poodle and a little girl with eyes that seemed to see everything. "I won't," the whisper came once he had been forced to break for breath, "Have you put at risk."

"Wouldn't have made it without my girl..."

"Shh..."

"We are not to stay here all night?" Renaud's voice could be heard once more. "Surely not in a barn?"

"You are welcome," Lucile told him far too pleasantly, "To take your chances out side with the wolves."

"Then perhaps, on balance, we will stay here..." the Frenchman decided. "Let us light the lanterns and see what he can see... I shall manage, sir, catch your breath!"

"I do not like it," the girl who was never far from Renaud's side announced, and Dan felt Lucile's annoyance flare almost as if it were his own. "Not one bit."

"Away you go, lassie," Dan told Grace, feeling now the slight twinge where his shoulder had hit the ground when they fell, "And see if you can do any better! We'll have it a palace in no time..."

Lucile's hand tightened on his arm and she hissed at the girl, who, in turn, rolled her eyes before following Renaud.

"This place isn't going to be sun proof..." the thought was a murmur and as the carriage lanterns flickered into life Dan peered into the shadows, seeing bales of straw and nothing else, but he would need nothing but that. "I'll build a little den for you three, you'll be right until tomorrow night."

"I am not sleeping with them--"

"Aye, all right," he nodded, the thought of building two shelters making his shoulder complain even more yet even that was no match for making Lucile as comfortable as he could manage. "I'll build you a wee place to call your own."

"I will not have you put out," her fractiousness was growing with each moment, "We should not have come."

In reply, her lover gave a carefree shrug, rather relishing a bit of adventure rather than polite dancing in a country house, not to mention the chance to snuggle in the hay with the girl he adored. It would be a cosy day of snuggling and sleep, Dan decided, no point in getting in a tizzy about it; at least, not until the horses started offloading last night's dinner.

"How," she sounded calmer even as she asked, "Can you stay so--"

"We're safe, just about warm and I've got my girl in my arms... what's to be upset about?"

"When you put it like that..." he felt her relax further then, the tension melting away as if by magic. Even with the playwright fluttering about unharnessing the horses and the little girl haunting his every step, there was nothing that Dan even noticed other than Lucile for now, kissing her again. In a moment he would build that shelter for them, he decided, it wouldn't be dawn for hours, after all.

"Tell them," she agreed in a murmur, "To keep well away...."

"We're in a barn... their choices are a bit limited..."

"That," she kissed him lingeringly, "Is their problem."

"You know me, Lucy," Dan murmured against her lips, chasing them for another kiss, "Do you really reckon I'd leave them to it?"

"No," she agreed with a sigh, "But I can hope...."

"Where shall we sleep?" Renaud asked the question of Dan, raising a lacy handkerchief to his nose.

"I hope," the girl added with relish, "That the wolves don't get in."

It was a mistake, to say the least, the playwright's eyes widening with comical effect and he directed Dan loftily, as though he were back in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, "Sir, you must wolf-proof this barn! I cannot, I am not built for physical labour!"

"He is not," the girl agreed, "Not at all!"

"And I cannot work with my hands, lest I damage them and cannot write!"

Lucile shook her head, clearly out of patience as she told Dan, "We will do it ourselves. The only way to make sure it is done properly, after all."

"And I will strum my lute," Renaud beamed brightly, "And my music will accompany your toil; each is working in his own way then, sir!"

"Will you sing too?" the girl asked, with a far-too sweet smile for Lucile.

"If you will duet with me!"

"If you will have me!"

"Come, choux, let us find the lute and settle in the hay for a song; Mr Hogan and our lovely Rouge can build as we play," the playwright decided, even as Dan felt Lucile tense at the nickname he reserved for her.

"Just make sure," the redhead snapped, "That it is at least a little in tune." With that she turned her back on the pair, telling Dan, "It is down to us."

"You sit down," Dan replied, the very idea of Lucile working one that he refused to entertain, "I'll get it done."

"I want to stay with you."

"You can watch, but you're not lifting hay bales!"

"I will do my part," she promised, "By watching you do so then."

That seemed like a fair compromise and, as Renaud began to strum a rather saucy air on the lute, settled decadently among the hay as though it were a spring meadow, Dan stripped off his coat and waistcoat, ignoring the Frenchman's appreciative whistle. A moment later he thought better of ignoring it and turned, bowing low to Renaud before he told him, "All compliments welcome, even if they do come from a vampire dandy!"

"Choux," Renaud laughed, "fan me!"

"Concentrate on your singing," Lucile ordered, settling herself firmly between Dan and the watching pair. Renaud began to sing, more than satisfying Lucile's command to keep in tune, and as he did, Dan set to work gathering the hay, determined that the twinge in his shoulder wouldn't slow him down. As he worked he felt Lucile's gaze upon him, steady and unwavering, the intensity one of the many things that had drawn him to her, that kept him there long after a casual dalliance would have seen them go their separate ways. That gaze was as distracting as it was wonderful and he glanced to her with a wink, determined that they would have a snug place for the hours of daylight.

"I'll rub that shoulder for you," she promised, "When you are done...."

"If that is to be our bolt-hole," Renaud suddenly announced, frowning at the rather narrow confines of the foundation of hay bales Dan was laying, "It looks rather small; Sabine will need room to roam, she is a very active little poodle and--"

"It's plenty big enough," Dan's tone was light, "And you're more than welcome to hop up and help me build, monsieur!"

"There is always," Lucile reminded him, "Outside. In the snow. With the wolves."

In reply, Renaud picked up the song again, though this time the lyrics were amended to reflect what an excellent builder of shelters Dan was, how he had the finest pubs in the land and the strongest shoulders in the kingdom.

Something, Lucile's murmured response was just audible above the singing, "That we at last agree on."

Dan laughed, shaking his head as he went back to work and Renaud moved on to Lucile, his lyrics now a tribute to her red hair and pale skin, her hot temper and almost ethereal beauty. That, Dan knew as he toiled, was true enough, but Renaud had neglected to mention the sensuous touch of her kiss, let alone the comfort of her embrace, the pride of knowing that this woman, this remarkable creature, had chosen a landlord from Arbroath to squire her about London. The girl piped up then, her own additions to the lyrics somewhat less reverent, though no doubt, he was sure, meant in jest rather than malice. Even so, one glance at Lucile told him that the she was not inclined to the joke, even as she tried to blink away the hurt in her eyes at Grace's teasing. Barely pausing in his work, Dan's voice sounded over the little girl's own, sharing a little ditty of his own making about a gaudy playwright who wore scent enough to sink a galleon and the little girl who was his shadow, the two of them making a dandified pair about the theatres of the city. It had the desired effect, the girl falling silent, though he wondered if she had read his intention or not.

"Your chap," Renaud shrieked with delight, "Can certainly sing!"

"He can do many things," Lucile informed them loftily, "Most of which you will never know of!"

"Tell me," he teased, continuing to strum the lute, "Is he as much a chap of action in the bedroom as the barn?"

"Bedroom, barn...." Lucile smoothed down her hair, the action doing little to tame the mane that had as much energy as the woman herself, "It makes little difference to Dan...."

"I'll wager that bar has seen a few sights," Renaud laughed, gaze shifting to watch Dan work. "And not just him vaulting over it when things get rowdy!"

"A lady," came the gratifying response, "Never tells."

"And a gent," Dan added, "Never asks, monsieur Renaud!"

"Indeed," Lucile looked triumphant, "A gentleman has told you, Monsieur!£

Renaud gave a carefree shrug and returned to his music as Dan continued to work, the first shelter soon constructed. It was rudimentary to say the least, of course, the walls straw bales and built high enough that Renaud and Grace might be able to crawl inside and settle to sleep but certainly not stand, the floor coated in straw to cushion their rest. Blankets from the carriage would be the roof and door and though the playwright looked at it with a mixture of horror and resignation, the Scot knew that it would more than do the job. He took a moment to catch his breath then, before beginning on the second identical shelter, this one to house Lucile Wyatt.

"It will be all right," the girl took the playwright's hand, her manner at odds with her apparent years, "We will manage together."

"It is too small," Renaud shook his head, a flash of fear in his eyes. "Very confined..."

"Cosy," the girl corrected, " And an adventure to tell."

"Cosy," he repeated, watching as Sabine nosed at the bales before trotting inside and curling up to sleep, the poodle slumbering happily within seconds. "And mistress Sabi seems to approve; a few blankets, a spray of lilac scent and it will be perfect, oui?"

"Oui!" the girl agreed wholeheartedly. "and you must get your rest."

"I will strum us a song as we drift," Renaud decided, the child's enthusiasm apparently doing much for his anxiety. "And we shall try not to hear Mr Hogan and Rouge making the best of their own little hay house!"

A snort of dismissal gave Grace's opinion of that, still holding Renaud's hand as she led him to the entrance to their shelter, letting go only to crawl in. With a bow to the couple, Renaud dropped to his knees and followed after her, leaving Dan to tell Lucile, "Give us a hand getting the horses of the harness and then we can settle down too, if you like?"

Lucile murmured agreement, but as she approached one of the already shaken animals it snorted, edging away.

"You grab the blankets and get yourself sorted," Dan decided with a smile, "Chuck a couple in for our dandies too!"

"Don't," the flicker of disquiet was gone in a moment, "Be too long."

"With you waiting to roll in the hay? I'll be seconds!"

That got a smile, and then she was away, busying with the blankets as instructed. As the horses were finally freed from the harness he found himself wondering about the fate of Doctor James Faulkner,  the man who had become a brother to Dan these past years. Faulkner would have been at the house for hours, he knew, yet still he murmured a silent prayer that his friend was safe out of the night, away from the wolves. Tomorrow they would be reunited, one having slept in a barn, the other in a mansion, but even a barn was a palace with Lucile waiting to snuggle up. She had worked some magic in the little shelter, he was sure, as with a few blankets artfully arranged it was no longer a cramped space but a welcome shelter, Lucile's gaze on him as she murmured, "Hello."

"Any room at the inn?"

"For you," she confirmed, "Only you."

That was all he needed to hear and he called a cheery goodnight to the other couple before crawling into the shelter,  the fatigue of the chase and fall, not to mention the time spent hefting hay bales, finally beginning to catch up with him. Her arms were around him a moment later, lips soft against his cheek.

"Told you," he sank into her embrace, "That I'd see you all safe."

"And you were right," she agreed, "It was not us I worried for."

She worried for him too much, he knew, even as he let his head fall to her shoulder, losing himself in her nearness. "I've got nine lives..."

"Keep it that way," came the gentle murmur, softer than she allowed herself to be in public, "There's no need to waste them."

"I'll get a couple of hours shuteye before dawn," Dan yawned, circling his shoulder gingerly, "Then keep watch when the sun comes up..."

Her agreement was a kiss, one hand gently stroking his hair as she settled beside him. Tomorrow night, he realised, she would finally meet Faulkner too, the two most important people in his life brought together at last. What the doctor would make of Lucile he wasn't sure, but it felt like the next step on a road he hadn't quite planned when they had begun this liaison that had already turned into so much more.

"Sleep," he felt rather than heard the word whispered with a kiss against his forehead, "Rest and sleep.”

"A couple of hours," Dan murmured, drawing the blankets over them as the lilting sound of Renaud's lute and a gentle lullaby could be heard from the neighbouring shelter. "And no more..."


6

As Dan and Lucile drifted into off to their dreams, their fellow travellers also relaxed into the safety of this unexpected sanctuary, cosily held in the cocoon of the shelter the landlord had swiftly constructed.

In the den that had seemed so utterly terrifying, so tomb-like, Renaud settled against the straw beneath the blankets Lucile had provided, idly strumming the lute and singing a gentle French lullaby, his poodle at his feet and Grace at his side as she had been since the night he awoke as... well, as more than French dandy and a fine playwright. 

The brocaded coat lay beside him, neatly folded, and the air was light with scent, springlike despite the heavy darkness and freezing snow without; all in all, Renaud reflected, it was a long way from Cavendish Square and even further from Versailles, but it was safe and that was all that mattered tonight.

"See?" the girl told him softly, "An adventure. You could write a play on it."

"Where would I be with my choux and my Sabine " Renaud smiled, lifting his gaze to meet Grace's, seeing behind those bright eyes a world of mystery, of secrets. He paused at the playing and reached out to touch her hand, adding, "My best friends."

"The wolves," the girl whispered then, "Would eat him first - there is no need to worry."

Renaud could not help the frown that creased his features at her words and he began to strum the instrument again, casually asking, "Why do you dislike Mr Miller so, little choux?"

"What," she countered, busy twirling a strand of golden hair around one finger, "Makes you think I dislike him?"

His reply was an indulgent tut, the Frenchman never one to be anything but adoring where his young charge was concerned. Hers was the first face he had seen after death, the golden hair a halo that, in his confusion, he believed meant he had made it to heaven. Instead he had woken from what he knew was his last night, the consumption gnawing at him, torturing him, to a life after life, reborn as a vampire thanks to someone, he knew not who.

It was not Grace, that much he was sure; no, she had found him after someone had drained him of blood and filled him with this... this power. He had settled beneath the trees of Hyde Park to watch the sunset in his best gold suit, to watch the last sun set on the last day of his life before the consumption claimed him and then... well, instead of oblivion he woke to the London night, the excitement and drama that it contained. He woke to Grace.

This lone child  had found him there beneath those trees and sat beside him as his body turned from human to vampire, the hours passing as Renaud knew nothing of what ailed him through that long night. He knew only her concern, her care, the companionship she had shown him since that day, teaching him the ways of his new life.

"I think you like only me and Sabi," Renaud eventually smiled, setting down the lute.  "We are honoured indeed."

"I like only you and Sabi," she confirmed, "that is it." 

"Well, we are the best family," he smiled, pressing a kiss to her hair, "And you are one third of it!"

"Family..." her expression turned wistful he thought for a moment. "Yes." 

"And tomorrow, you shall meet a very handsome devil!"

"I think I might have seen him," came the careless response, "Once before."

"More handsome than I?"

"Never." 

"Choux, you are a tonic," he laughed, kissing her hair; not for the first time he wondered who she was, who she had found him and not for the first time he realised he little cared, her friendship was all that mattered.

"When we get to this party," the girl yawned, though he vaguely wondered if she actually needed to do so, "Will there be dancing?"

"Only if you will give me the first dance!" The thought of it cheered him as much as her company, "And we will change into our matching blue silk, you and I?"

"The first," she agreed much to his delight, "And the second too - we will show that Devil how to dance!" 


7

The house was large and the party busy, so it was longer than it should have been before Mary discovered her mistress, still on the floor where the man who dared to call himself her husband had discarded her. Despite her protestations to the contrary, it was all too apparent to the maid that Alice's scrapes would need seeing to, denials still ringing in her ears as Mary hurried off to find water and cloth. As she again descended the staircase her anger knew no bounds, both towards her master and her own helplessness to do anything to change the fate of the woman she cared so much for.  

Water, Mary told herself, water, and a cloth. She had not thought to bring with her the salve that she had far too often had cause to apply to the injuries inflicted upon her mistress, and she grew even crosser at the oversight, at the suffering that would be caused by the lack of it. She had thought she knew the way to the kitchens but after one wrong turn and then another she realised she was hopelessly lost, doing little to improve her mood, direction something she was usually able to pride herself on, but even that had now deserted her. "Hell!" 

 It was at that moment that Mary rounded a corner, colliding headlong with the man coming the other way, her exclamation of annoyance loud and most certainly not in terms her mistress would approve of. She was not one of his household, Mishael knew that in an instant, even as he reeled back for a moment, eyes wide with amusement at the word she had uttered. "Madam!"

"Water," she remembered instantly her purpose, "And a cloth. Where can I find them?" 

"Did you know..." he leaned closer, voice a conspiratorial whisper, "It is snowing? In summer.. have you seen it?"

"I don't give a fig, sir," Mary declared hotly, the shock of the collision adding to her ill-temper, "For the weather. Water if you please!"

"Forgive me, I did not recognise you!" Mishael bowed very low, flourishing his hand as he straightened. "The Duchess of Devonshire herself! I shall repair and find water at once; please, your Grace, follow me."

That brought her up short; feeling crosser than ever Mary turned on her heel, declaring, "I will find it myself!"

"Not if you follow that corridor, you won't," he called, his tone more placatory when he added, "Please, miss, follow me, I shall find what you need."

"This place," she turned back to him, though still riled, "Is like a rabbit warren!"

"And they say the walls change before your very eyes; it is the devil's house."

"A pox on the Devil," she decided, in no mood for mystery, "and his house too!"

"A pox on him indeed," the man agreed with a flourish of his hand, as though he were not half-dressed and wandering the hallways like a savage.

She wondered then what she was doing, alone in these corridors with this stranger, a man whose eyes, when they settled on her, were unlike any she had seen before, no colour visible, dark and filled with something she couldn't identify. "Are you sure it is this way?"

"Do you doubt a man," the footman, for she was sure he must be a footman or perhaps even a stablehand from his careless undress, looked down at his feet, "Without his boots on?"

"I just need," she told him, following his gaze before looking up again, wondering at what sort of man - Devil or not - would employ someone who walked around in such disarray, "The water."

"Has something untoward happened?" He did not take her to the kitchen but deep into the house, its walls not moving, but labyrinthine and she was all set to find her own way when the man opened a door onto a pantry where a fire burned bright despite the cool air, the shelves piled high with cakes and food for the feast. "Have a jam tart and I will find you your water."

"I need to get back--"

Her companion lifted a heavy iron cauldron up over the fire as though it were weightless and then he cocked his head to one side, the glittering black eyes settling on Mary. For a moment he was silent and then he said, "The water will soon be boiled... should I bring it up?"

Alice would not, she knew instantly, welcome that at all, much less did she like the thought of some unknown man in the vulnerable woman's chamber. "I am not letting a half dressed footman into my mistress's bedroom, sir!"

"Then you must wait for the water to boil," he sighed, shaking his head. "I thought perhaps a jam tart might occupy you whilst you wait..."

There was something she couldn't name in that gaze then, the fight going out of her as she groped for a chair. "Do you vouch for the devil's tarts?"

"I do!" Her companion nodded keenly, holding out a pastry to Mary. "You are Lady Brandenburg's maid?"

She hesitated a moment before taking the tart, nodding slightly. "I am." 

He nodded, bowing deeply as she took the offering and when he straightened his back, his eyes glittered with mischief. "Then you must be sure to take her a tart too."

Mary snorted at that, the thought of Alice eating anything much less a tart far more ludicrous than the thought of the Devil pacing these halls. "It will be wasted on her I fear."

"Then another for yourself and if you ever feel a little bit... low," The turned footman back to the now boiling pot of water, "Come back to this pantry and help yourself to anything you wish here; it is the devil's secret stash."

"We'll be gone in the morning," Mary told him, quite certain of that, softening a moment to add, "But thank you."

With a nod, the man filled a large china jug from the cauldron and then offered it to Mary with a gentle smile, telling her, "Perhaps next time; it is always nice to talk."

"Talking," she realised then, too late, "Causes trouble.  You won't--" she stumbled over the words, "You won't tell anyone, about this, will you?"

"Especially not the devil," he promised. "I will tell nobody."

"Thank you," she hid her sudden disquiet with a bite of tart, eyes widening as she added, "This is delicious." The footman positively beamed at the comment, and set the jug down beside the door before he took up a pastry of his own and bit into it. As she chewed he crossed to the window where a gentle snow was falling in the darkness, blanketing the parkland beyond.

"That better not settle...." she got to her feet to join him, frowning. 

"I believe it will."

A shiver passed through her then, another bite of tart not enough to chase away the sudden chill. "We'll see...."

"If it does," he smiled, the hand that was missing its little finger passing through his dark hair, "Then at least you will be comfortable here; some of the guests have yet to even arrive... the very guest of honour himself!"

"She won't like that," Mary shook her head, thinking again of Alice, "She'll want to get home...."

"We cannot always have what we want," was the reply, his shrug rather flamboyant. "Unless it is jam tarts, in which case, we are well catered for."

She popped the final piece of her own into her mouth, chewing and swallowing as her frown deepened, peering into the night. "Well I shall be praying for a thaw." With that she turned to the door, lifting the jug and cloth he had provided. Thoughts on her mistress she paused to look at the man once more, telling him, "Thank you. For your kindness."

8

The snow did not stop during the night, nor did it lessen but instead it fell heavier than before, blanketing the summer landscape in a thick carpet of white. When dawn came the house slumbered, or some of it did; for the more urgent attendees the snow had meant an escape by night, whilst for the Scottish doctor who had not slept all night, it meant only that his usual early morning walk was taken in this new, cold parkland. In the kitchens and dining room, however, the staff of the devil's house did not sleep, rushing this way and that to ensure that a breakfast fit for a king was laid out.

Alice had likewise not slept, the pain in her back and head keeping her awake throughout the long hours, her maid likewise where she dozed fitfully at the foot of her bed. She had felt, she was sure, as wretched before, but somehow, in the wake of seeing Robert Faulkner again - her boy - her misery reached new heights, making it as hard as the physical pain to drag herself from the bed come dawn as Mary did her best to clean her wounds and help her dress. 

How she would face breakfast, her husband, society, she did not know, yet face them she must. She would pin her hair and lace her stays and be every inch the society hostess she had been trained to be, full of her medicine and suffering with every second.

The pity her maid knew better than to voice was still evident and she fought back the sharp words that she knew the other woman did not deserve, instead managing a brittle smile and a murmur of
thanks as she was finally ready, only the deadness in her expression betraying that anything was amiss as Mary carefully escorted her to the stairs. 

From here, she knew, she must go alone, no maids to be seen in the dining room where even now she could hear the hushed chatter of duchesses and their dukes. Sophia, of course, would not be there, the girl never an early riser at the best of times, but she would not be absent for long and one who would be there was her husband, Ted never missing the chance to play the genial chap about town.

I can’t, she wanted to say, wanted to turn and flee, out of the front door and into the snow beyond, away from everything, everyone, what awaited her. Even as she thought it her hand closed over the door handle, a small smile for Mary's benefit before she opened the door and entered. 

The first thing she realised was that her husband was not there, that the attendees at the party had seemingly dwindled overnight. The second was that her seat, which the kindly dowager duchess was gesturing her towards, was beside an empty seat. No doubt, she knew as she crossed to greet the others and take that seat, her husband would soon be beside her, the very thought making her skin crawl.

Her smile was brighter yet as she eased herself down onto the chair, the movement agony as she settled her skirts, no sign of her torment clear on her face. She was skilled at this after all, of keeping everything locked away inside.

In fact, the increasingly frail Lady Alice Brandenburg was of no consequence this morning, not when news had arrived from the surrounding lands of violence overnight. A wolf attack, the whispers said, yet without the full moon and it was not only wolves that had torn a carriage load of travellers to shreds, but vampires too. Of course, the viscount who led the debate smiled politely, not well bred vampires like the Prussian gentleman who had so far not shown his face, but those lawless types, the unchristian devils of the night who terrorised the lands by darkness.

Three dead, he remarked, torn limb from limb, they say.

It's a sorry business.

"Ladies, gentlemen," Mishael de Chastelaine was already speaking when he swept into the room in a flurry of deep green silk, the ebony cane gripped in one hand. He bowed deeply to his companions and settled at the top of the table, leaning forward as though addressing an intimate friend to explain, "We have had snow! In summer! As a result, my Prussian guest of honour is nowhere to be seen, the Prince of Wales fled in the night and took my burliest footmen to dig their way through the snow--" His eyes suddenly settled on Alice, a small, apologetic smile forming on his handsome face. "Lady Brandenburg, your husband accompanied his Highness to town; he had business that he lamented could not be delayed. Be assured he is safe, his was not the conveyance that was attacked so brutally last night."

"He has gone?" she cursed herself as the words left her lips, surprise getting the better of her as relief followed close on its heals and then, somewhere, disappointment that the wolves and their brethren had chosen another carriage as their prey. "Of course -- business is not to be ignored. Thank you for informing me, sir."

"I should have done so privately, I apologise--" the door opened again, the arrival this time the rather less flamboyantly dressed and mannered Robert Faulkner. He paused on the threshold, surveying the scene, every eye turned to him and then, with a murmured apology, approached the table and the only empty place setting, that beside Alice. Her heart began to hammer unbidden within her chest, panic rising as she told herself he couldn't, couldn't possibly, sit beside her.

"And yet here is Dr Faulkner to keep you company," Mishael gestured Faulkner towards the chair, the doctor's expression unreadable as he settled, murmuring an apology to Alice even as he did. He looked as awkward as she, as though he wished he could be anywhere but here.  She could not leave without causing a scene, but to stay here, sitting beside him, so close her skirts brushed his leg, was the worst kind of torment she could imagine. Alice almost laughed then; she had not thought it possible to almost wish for her husband to be there at that moment, his cruelty and hardness at least predictable, something she knew how to deal with. This-- having him so close after all those years, after their encounter the night before-- 

"Snow in the height of summer," one of the assembled peers laughed, addressing the doctor, "You've brought the highland weather down with you, sir! Chased the Prince of Wales back to town though, much to the relief of all gambling men here!" 

"Quite so," Faulkner's reply was polite, reserved, a world away from her boy and her carefree humour. "Let the men of action face the road, I am happy to remain here until the thaw. No consultancy fee is worth risking one's neck with killers roaming!"

She should speak, Alice knew, but she could find no words, hands knotting her napkin as she told herself this was surely a dream, that she would wake any moment, in the borrowed bed or even back in her own. Her neighbour seemed equally speechless, the conversation buzzing around them as the food was served, Mishael leading the party as well as any devil might. Eventually, however, the doctor leaned a little closer and asked Alice, "Did you sleep well, Lady Brandenburg?"

"As well as one can when not in one's own bed, Doctor." The words were plucked from somewhere, fingers doggedly twisting the fabric over and over, good manners dictating that she add, "Yourself?"

"Somewhat grander than my Highgate cottage," he managed a smile, "One becomes used to one's feet overhanging the bed..."

"That is not a problem," she replied stiffly, "That I am familiar with." She reached suddenly for her glass with one hand, nearly sending it flying in the process as she misjudged.

Faulkner's hand flashed up to catch the glass and right it, brushing Alice's own fingers as he did. He was too close, she thought suddenly, aware of the touch of his skin on hers, the gentle tone of his voice when he said, "I believe this weather would be bad even in Scotland..."

"You would know better than I," she heard the brittle tone of her own voice, "I do not recall much of the weather or otherwise."

"Dr Faulkner has been in Russia, I believe," one of the ladies called, "At the Winter Palace; I believe this is summer in Russia! Tell us, doctor, of your travels!" 

"Perhaps later," came his gentle reply, the woman happy to tell some tales of her own instead as the doctor asked Alice, "You have not returned to Scotland?"

Her eyes closed briefly then, the many many times she had desired to do so flooding over her, "There has been little call to, Doctor." 

"I keep a house there; I hope to return permanently one day," he admitted quietly, bright blue gaze settling on Alice once more, "One can have enough gouty Hanovers."

"Then I wish you all the best in that endeavour." She shifted in her seat to put more space between them, barely managing to keep from crying out at the jarring to her back.

She saw his own movement, the slight dip of his shoulders as he reached for his teacup, taking a sip in silence. Of course he did not reply, how could he? What possible reply could there be to such a comment? When he did speak, however, she was not expecting the question to be a very hushed, "Are you hurt, Lady Brandenburg?"

How, she wanted to demand, how could he know? He had always though been able to read her like a book, the expression in those eyes she knew too well as she glanced at him almost enough to bring all manner of confessions spilling from her lips. "I am quite well, thank you."

"Mr de Chastelaine," Faulkner drained his cup and stood, bowing slightly, "I find myself in need of a walk in this fine weather we are having." His eyes barely took in Alice as they moved, watchful and careful, over the gathering. With another bow he left the room, the door closing with a note of finality.

She should be glad, she knew, but Alice felt only regret, for this, for everything that had passed between them, for what had never been. The remainder of the meal she endured in silence, taking small comfort from the fact no one noticed her discomfort when she was finally able to stand, slowly making her way from the room in escape.

Alice's only intention, her only focus was to find her way back to her own chamber and the kindness of Mary,  the closest to a friend she might claim. She might then have some respite from the stays and gowns, the sharp puncture on her back where the corner of the fireplace had sliced into her burning with a heat that seemed ridiculous for the size of the injury. Some rest, Alice told herself, rest and her medicine and all would soon be well.

Head down she started for the stairs, knowing as she did so that each step would be agony, little caring as each would bring her closer to respite. So intent was she on not collapsing that Alice was barely aware of the sound of boots descending the staircase until a shadow fell over her and Robert Faulkner's voice murmured, "What has happened, Lady Brandenburg? You're struggling..."

"I had a little fall," the half-truth fell far too easily from her lips, voice far too light, "I have grown clumsy in my old age it would seem."

"Can I help you to your room? I could look at the injury, should you wish?" His tone was so formal, so full of professional concern... it was somehow worse than indifference might have been.

"It is nothing," she heard herself insist,  even as she longed to confess everything, to give herself over to his care. "Enjoy your walk, Doctor." 

"Good day, Lady Brandenburg," Faulkner told her with too much civility, already continuing on his way. "Rest assured I will be away as soon as the weather permits; I would not have you uncomfortable for the world."

It was far too late for that, her hand lifting briefly before falling to her side once more, a murmured, "Good day" as everything within her cried out at the unfairness of the world.

Alice's day did not improve, of course, but continued as every day did in its order with reading and needlepoint and endless, dragging hours, the wound in her back stabbing and burning more with every passing moment. With Mary in attendance she was not entirely alone, though of her stepdaughter there was no sign, and Alice remained in her rooms as the daylight faded to dusk, even  as the pain blazed through her. 

"You need to get it looked at," Mary's words reached her through a haze, "You need a doctor." 

"A doctor!" Alice almost laughed then, "There is one, there is one in this house, I was sat by him at 
breakfast..." It was hot, suddenly too hot in her room, and she turned for the door, opening it as she told her maid, "I am going to find him...."

She was barely even aware of the cacophony of noise downstairs that had arrived courtesy of two men, a woman, a child and a poodle, one of the more outlandish parties to cross the Hampshire countryside in some time. One of the men was dressed entirely in bright, blazing yellow, the poodle matching though the dog did not share his face full of makeup, her diamond-encrusted collar positively plain next to the many jewels that sparkled on the hands and stockpin of Fabien Renaud. In his arms he carried a little girl, fussing the snow from her golden hair as he announced in an accent more French than France itself, "This was worse than the Revolution! I am not made for sleeping in a barn!"

"You are not," the girl agreed, "Though you still look quite perfect!"

"Bloody hell!" The second man of the party, somewhat less made up and silk-clad, paused inside the entrance hall to draw breath, "Near twenty four hours in a carriage with three grumpy vampires; I didn't think I'd make it at time..." he turned to the woman, offering her a grin, "But if you're going to be snowed into a barn with any man, you can't do better than Dan Miller!"

"I am not," the decidedly glamorous redhaired woman responded with a flash of fangs, "Grumpy. You would not like me at all if I were."

"I always like you, Lucy,” Dan took her hand, drawing her close for a kiss, "Now I need a bath and a beer, it's no easy job, sun-proofing a barn with only a shrieking dandy and a poodle to help!"

"I told you," she reminded him, "You should have used the poodle to fill in one of the gaps. And the dandy's suit." 

"Sabine is not to be used for plugging gaps in barns!" Renaud's tone was one of pure outrage, the poodle yapping her agreement. "Anyway, sir, watching you work certainly gave me a misty eyed moment, you are quite the strong sort!"

Lucile hissed at him then, as the girl exclaimed upon seeing Alice on the stairs,  "Someone is here!"

"Madame," Renaud bowed low, about to introduce the unusual party when Dan took a step forward, his own Scottish tones considerably less excitable than the Frenchman. Perhaps he saw the pain in her expression, perhaps he had simply had enough of French vampires but whatever it was, he bowed slightly and addressed her. 

"Pardon me, madame, perhaps you might point our party towards the host?"

"The host?" his words didn't seem to make sense, "I am looking for a doctor--"

From nowhere a flurry of well-drilled domestic staff appeared to assist the new arrivals, Renaud in particular attracting more attention than anyone and Dan took advantage of the moment to approach Alice. "We've just come  through the village," he said, frowning, "They said there's a man there seeing people who the cold weather's troubling... I could go back and bring him up here?"

"No," she shook her head, trying to make her own words clearer, "No, there is one here already, Doctor-- Doctor Faulkner. My--”

"Robert is here?" He fairly brightened at that. "Then let me find him and he can have a look at you?"

"You must tell him," she decided then, certain she should have done this long before now, "That I am sorry."

Dan glanced back at his party, gesturing to them to go along with the maids before he turned his full attention on Alice, "Aye, I'll tell him."

She became aware of Mary behind her then, a hand on her arm, her maid addressing Dan to tell him, "My mistress needs to see a doctor, can you help us?"

"I hear that Dr Faulkner's in residence? You can't do better than him--"

"Dr Faulkner left this morning, sir," a maid piped up then, dashing Alice's final hopes,  "Business to attend to."

"I'll head back to the village," Dan told Mary and Alice as one, his face betraying a flicker of disappointment at the news of the departure of the man he clearly held in high esteem, "Fetch their man up here?"

"No-" Renaud shook his head. "It is hardly safe-"

Dan silenced him with a wink and promised, "Nine lives."

"I don't," it was becoming harder to focus on the man Alice realised dimly, harder to understand his words, "Want to cause any trouble.” Amongst it all she was hit by the fact that he had left, that he had gone, just like that, leaving her alone again like he had before, abandoning her without a thought.

"Daniel Miller," the man suddenly announced, dropping into a bow, "Landlord, friend of Dr Faulkner, intrepid traveller in the company of this rabble," he jerked a thumb towards the group,  "And never one to leave a lady in distress. Get yourselves out to my carriage, ladies, I'll have you with that doctor before you can blink."
Alice started to protest again, but the words wouldn't come, the step that she was certain was just beneath her foot suddenly not as she felt herself lunge forwards, hearing dimly her own murmur of alarm as she realised she was falling before everything turned black. It was pure chance that Dan moved just in time to catch Alice before she tipped headlong down the staircase and, with her held in his arms, he looked back to his own group and told them, “That's me into town then."


9


The journey back to the village was one of which Alice knew nothing and one that was, happily, conducted without attack or even the suggestion of incident, no wolf howl to rend the night. Insensible, she felt not a second of the passage of the carriage over the snow-covered ground, nor heard Daniel Miller's shouts of encouragement to the horses in harness. She did not feel Mary's tender hand bathing her fevered brow, nor knew the sudden silence when they drew into the courtyard of a country inn where the doctor was preparing to return back to his bed, his consultation with the elderly and vulnerable of the village now at a close. In fact, it was not until she was safely gathered into the arms of that same doctor, who was carrying her into the inn, that she began to stir. Her mind was foggy, everything unclear, and she struggled to remember something, anything, forcing her eyelids open, wetting her lips in an attempt to speak.

"You've a fever," a soft Scottish voice told her, and she felt the edges of a blanket around her face, realising vaguely that she was cocooned in warmth, in an embrace.

It couldn't possibly be him, she knew, he had left her, abandoned her as he had done before, leaving her to her sorry fate. Yet the fever allowed her to pretend, a soft smile on her lips as she whispered, "I was looking for my boy...."

"Alice?" Her boy's voice was suddenly clear as day, full of surprise at the sight of her and she felt a gentle hand drawing the blanket back from her face, followed by the warmth and glow of what must be a roaring fire. The embrace around Alice lessened then and she felt a soft mattress beneath her, heard that gentle voice again asking, "Ed, what--"

"We got snowed in on the road," another man joined the conversation, "And by the time we got to the party, this lady was in dire straits; her lassie said she needed a doctor and I knew there was one in the village. Didn't know it was you though."

"The snow was unexpected," Faulkner was saying, his hands moving softly on the blanket again to ensure Alice was warm as she could be. "I thought there might be people who needed help... I walked from the house to see if I was needed."

"I thought--" she couldn't find the words, darkness threatening again, everything too hot, the insides of her eyelids burning.

"I would not go; I was coming back to see you," Faulkner's voice was soothing, kindly. A palm pressed to her forehead and then he spoke again, tone considerably more urgent and seemingly not  addressed to her, "What can you tell me of your mistress's illness?"

"It came on very suddenly," she heard Mary's voice as if from a distance, "her back--"

No she tried to warn, no, don't tell him, don't--

"Tell him," Alice heard Dan ask Mary gently as Faulkner gave a murmured hush, his hand closing around her own and squeezing softly, "He's the best doctor you'll find."

She heard her maid haltingly betray her, telling Faulkner that her mistress had fallen, a cut on her back sore and angry, her concern that it had turned bad. Alice closed her eyes, concentrating on breathing, wishing that she could not, that she could resign her life here in utter despair and shame.

"Would you be able to help Lady Brandenburg undress?" The doctor squeezed Alice's hand again, "Just enough that I might see the wound; Mr Miller and I shall wait outside, of course."

As Mary murmured her assent, Alice found herself holding tightly to the hand that grasped hers, too many words, too many feelings, too hot to be able to even start to say what she wanted.

"I'll be in the bar," Dan told them, the sound of the door opening and closing a moment later yet still the doctor's hand held Alice's tightly in turn, fingers twined with hers as they used to all those years ago.

"Are you really here?" She asked, deciding quickly, "No, don't tell me, if you're not I don't want to know..."

"I am here," the reply was gentle, almost a whisper, "I shall only be gone a few seconds whilst your maid helps you to undress."

"No," she shook her head, the movement sending the world spinning as she clutched him tighter. If he left he would not return, would vanish once and for all.

"I will stay," she heard something in his tone, almost a tremble somehow and then he asked Mary,  “Might you assist with your mistress's clothing?"

"No," she heard her own voice again, "No,  just us, just you and I--" She suddenly did not care what anyone thought, even Mary,  the need to have back even a moment of what had been lost, overwhelming above all else.

"Would you--" he sounded almost timid, not at all the man who had seemed so in control. "Your mistress is in safe hands, would you entrust her to me?"

"Of course." Mary's tone was far from sure, but when bidden by both she had little choice, Alice feeling a flicker of guilt at putting her maid in such a position before her attention returned once more to Faulkner, to the fact that he was there, expression so soft she could almost believe that he cared for her as she had thought he had of old. Yet this was, she knew, the face he presented to all of those noble patients whose ill she tended, professional concerns as learned as the medicine he practised. It was just the firelight that had softened it so, the blue of this eyes that she stiller recalled of old.

"What has happened to you?"

Did he mean her injury, or the entire sorry story of her life? She laughed, the sound becoming close to a sob, finally managing, "I fell-"

"Will you allow me to look?" The doctor's hands were assured as he helped her to sit a little, bringing the blanket down around her shoulders. "Where on your back is the injury?"

She gestured, caught again by his voice, his hands, his softness, telling him, "Mary is just fussing..."

"And now I will fuss too," those hands moved to unlace her dress with utmost care, the warm arm from the fire touching her bare skin as he parted the sides of Alice's gown and eased it down her shoulders somewhat. With a gentle touch he swept her hair, which had fallen loose somewhere, somehow, over one shoulder, the other hand shifting the edge of her chemise so he could better examine the wound.

"It's nothing," she murmured again, everything about his touch kinder than any she had known in years, "I have grown clumsy..."

"What on earth..." Alice felt his fingertip skim the wound, cool and soft​ and more gentle than any touch she had known in years, even that of her faithful maid.​ "Where did you fall?"

"In my room...." She tried to focus on the question, "Against the fire place..."

"I just need my bag," Alice closed her eyes, feeling his absence as soon as he drew away  enough to retrieve his case from where it say closed beside the bed. "Your maid has done a fine job, but let's see if we can't ease it a little more."

"It's hot," she murmured, finally giving voice to the thought, "Too hot in here."

"Any other pains?"

Had she? There was the pain her heart suffered daily, the deadness in her soul that was a constant gnawing weight, but he would not want to hear that she was certain. "I hit my head..."

"I wanted to see you, to apologise--"

"Apologise?" The words didn't make sense. 

"I was far from polite this morning," he opened the case, but she saw a faint flush on his cheek.

"No more," She coughed, the strange heat in her veins colouring everything again for a moment, "Than I deserve."

"You say you are hot..." He knelt beside the bed on one knee, studying her face. "Have there been chills too?"

She found she didn't know, the only thing she was certain of now the concern in those eyes that held her own, that he was here with her, whatever had happened in the past. "I can't think..."

"There may be some infection, a fever," his words were more formal than his tone, the look in his gaze betraying something... friendship? "I'll clean and dress the wound then check your head." His hand strayed out, brushing her hair, "You'll soon be well again."

She would never be well, she knew, not in this life that she found herself in. "Is that why I can see you? Are you part of the fever?"

"I am quite solid," Faulkner gave a self deprecating smile and took her hand in one of his own whilst the other patted his stomach, coming to rest against the understated finery of his black waistcoat. "Rather too solid nowadays!"

"Am I going to die?" she asked then, uncertain in that moment whether an answer in the affirmative would being her more sorrow or relief. 

"I have never lost a patient," he smiled. "Nor a friend."

She had been a friend, she wanted to point out, a friend that he had cast aside, abandoned. Through the fever she felt anger rise again, hopelessness following quickly on its heels, her hand tightening on his. 

"It will be all right," was the doctor's gentle promise before he gently retrieved his hand and set about his business. His hands were assured and confident yet tender too as he mixed salves and potions, applying something with a strong floral scent to the wound, the mixture cooling her burning skin almost immediately. With utmost care he massaged the potion into the injury, all the time telling her that this would take away the infection, that the fever would pass. 

"Don't make me go back...." She heard herself whisper, "Don't make me..."

"Don't upset yourself any further," he hushed, "Just concentrate on being well."

She felt herself floating then, eyes closed, even as she tried to tell him something, something that was, she knew, of utmost importance.

"There are some bruises..." he murmured, concern in the words. "Do you fall often?"

Clumsy..." She managed, "Own fault..." 

"I can prepare you a balm to ease it," she felt his hands trace the bruises her husband had left, the touch gossamer light, "The wound is dressed, so just turn onto your back and I shall prepare something for the fever..."

She did so with effort, wincing at the movement of her aching body. Forcing her gaze to focus on him she found the words she had been struggling for. "I've missed you..."

"I don't think a day has passed that I have not thought about you," he paused, one hand in the medical case, his gaze settling on her with a look of ruefulness. "And missed you."

His words were, she was sure, a kindness more than truth, though the thought that he might have missed her, thought of her even a little, brought with it a flicker of something that might have been happiness. The soothing salve was working its magic, the relief, however slight, more than welcome as she felt herself slowly start to relax, eyes fluttering for a moment before she forced them open once more, certain he would vanish if she did not keep watching. 

"Does that feel any easier?" Faulkner asked, watching her closely. "The wound had some dirt in it, but it's clean now." 

"You have worked magic..." Alice focused again on his eyes, "I cannot stay too long...." 

"We shall travel back to the house together," was his gentle reply, "And I will keep an eye on that fever of yours, if you will permit it." 

"I would never," she assured him, a small laugh at how ludicrous the suggestion was, "Send you away." 

His gaze flitted away from hers for a moment, no longer than that, and he nodded, telling her, "You would have been very ill, had you not come tonight." 

"Then perhaps fate has been kind for once...." 


"It has smiled." She tried to keep her eyes open then but the effort proved beyond her, closing despite her best efforts. 


10

The night had been a long one and by the time the carriage saw them safely back to the house of Mishael de Chastelaine, Mary was more than ready for rest and respite. Her worry for her mistress was diminished somewhat by the clear care the doctor was taking of her, but something nagged at her, a feeling she did not know the whole story, as she pulled the door closed on the pair in Alice's bedroom. 

There was little place for her, it felt, and she descended the stairs, finding herself coming to a somewhat lost halt at the bottom. She should remain, she knew, should put her mistress's honour and reputation above everything yet this was Doctor Robert Faulkner  the man entrusted with the health of the queen herself, to whom no scandal had ever attached itself, for whom the finest doors in Europe were opened without question. There was no question of compromise in his presence, and he was a devoted physician, she could see, retiring only to sleep and only then for the barest hours before he was once more at Alice's side. 

With a sigh Mary sat, just for a moment, she told herself, while she gathered her thoughts and decided what to do with herself. The noises of the household went on around her, bringing some comfort in their familiarity in any big home, ad she found herself thinking of jam tarts shared the night before. 

She would not be able to find that strange little pantry, Mary knew, let alone the barefooted footman who cared so little for his master that he wandered about undressed, stealing from the kitchens as though it were his right. She should not, she decided, even be thinking of it; a cup of tea and then she would do as the doctor had advised and take to her bed to sleep off the broken night that had gone before. 

With that she got once more to her feet, confident she could find the kitchen at least. The house, however, had other ideas and she found herself wandering once more, the sounds of the house petering out into a snow-blanketed silence as she trod the less grand corridors that should have been bustling with servants. It was at the moment that Mary was about to turn and give up that she heard the familiar whistle of the infernal footman, somewhere up ahead. She quickened her step, certain that she was only going to ask the way to the kitchen before leaving him to his own business, whatever that was. Rounding the corner though did not reveal him, and she paused, listening intently. 

"Boo." The word was a whisper, the hand with its missing finger tapping Mary's shoulder from behind. 

She yelped loudly, spinning round to confront the man who had scared her half out of her wits. "It is rude to sneak up on people!" 

"Tarts?" 

"Don't change the subject!" She glared at him, demanding, "What are you doing creeping about?" 

"I'm not creeping, I'm whistling!" The face, ludicrously handsome, the sort of face that one saw painted on ivory in a lady's boudoir, wore a look of comical hurt. 

"You are creeping," she insisted, "And I do not care for it, sir!" Mary peered at him, before adding, "And what is there to be whistling about?" 

"How's your lady?" 

"Resting," she admitted quietly, "The doctor is with her." 

The footman nodded his approval, those jet black eyes glittering when he admitted, "He and I know one another of old; he's a fine sort." 

"Who is he?" Mary found herself asking, curiosity getting the better of her, "Really? He has been most attentive...." 

"He's the man who Queen Charlotte calls on when she has a chill, whom the late queen of France had tend her nasty toenail..." he smiled brightly, "And who has saved more lives in more ways than he will ever admit." 

"My mistress seems to trust him," Mary admitted with a frown, "Which is unusual in itself...." 

He nodded, walking on ahead as he called, "Come on, you; apple pie and brandy?" 

"I was just..." she picked up her pace to catch up, "Going to find some tea..." 

The footman spun on his bare heel, walking backwards as he regarded her with something akin to confusion, "Tea? That doctor's influence is spreading!" 

"I relied on tea," she corrected firmly, "Long before that Doctor came on the scene! Brandy at this time of the morning is asking for trouble!” 

"Tea it shall be," he nodded, then bowed deeply. "I am the man who looks after the household." 

"Look after it?" she wondered at him having anything close to authority here, "I'm sure you do!" 

"Positively run the place," his eyes widened and he asked, "Have you seen the estate? The hellfire caves? You should explore." 

"It if's anything like this house out there," she gestured, "I'd never find my way back!" she frowned, struck, not for the first time, with the feeling that the house was not all it should be. 

"How can you say that," he paused suddenly beside a door, a door that Mary was sure she hadn't seen a moment before, "When here we are at the kitchen?" 

With those words, he opened the door onto a bustling kitchen alive with staff and noise, the scent of a feast wafting up to meet her. At the appearance of this rather unusual footman, those nearest the door gave cheery greetings and then he was leading the way into the room, calling for tea and cake as though he owned the house. She followed, more perplexed than ever, though it made sense, she supposed, that such an odd fellow would work for such a master as his was purported to be. 

"So," he spun to face her again, gesturing to an empty seat at the scrubbed pine table in the centre of the room, "What do you know of the devil?" 

"Very little," she resisted the urge to cross herself, the habit an old one that had never quite died, "And I am happy for it to remain that way!" 

"Do you believe," another gesture to the seat, even as his other hand raised to beckon over a lad who was already scurrying to bring the requested refreshments, "He is what they say he is?" 

"I've never," she realised it was somewhat of an untruth even as the words left her lips, "Given the matter much thought." 

"The chair," he frowned, "Won't eat you." 

Mary had not realised she had been hovering then, frowning again at herself as she sat. "I should hope not!" 

"So," he took his own seat, eyes still on her even as he poured the tea, "The vampires are here?" 

"They arrived just as we left," she remembered the strange party, "They have a child with them...." 

"And a landlord... the doctor's best friend; now that is a tale, but not one for me to tell."

"He's the one who took us to him," Mary recalled the man who had been so helpful, "I never thanked him...." 

"Do you know," the footman laughed, piling the plates with cake, "He had to squirrel three annoyed vampires away after they got hit by the snow? They all went to sleep in a barn and the poor soul had to run around making sure not a chink of sunlight could get in. He's lucky to still have his head!" 

"Some," she opined, watching with grudging approval, "Would have let the light in and be done with it!" 

"And rob the theatrical world of the continent's most dandified farceur?" 

"Some," Mary continued, "wouldn't much care given what he is!" 

The footman shrugged, telling her, "Then some need to learn to live and let live. There are plenty of humans would do you a lot more harm than a dandified vampire!" 

"I didn't," she pointed out, "Say that I was one of them." she met his gaze, remarking to herself again on his eyes, "I have no problem with vampires as long as they behave themselves."

"You are looking," he observed, taking a bite of cake, "At my eyes." 

"Would you rather," she found herself asking, "I looked at something else?” 

"Well, here I am in just shirt and breeches... I imagine to a ladies maid of your pedigree, I am virtually naked?" He smiled, eyes sparkling, "What a debauched household we are!" 

"You say that," she pointed out, "Like it is a good thing!" 

"Snow in July," a buxom lady commented as she bustled past, arms full of what appeared to be half a roast pig, "And naked chaps in the kitchen!" 

"What does your master think," she asked, curious, "At you wandering around like that? " 

"I am the man who looks after the household," the footman reminded Mary, "I have no master." 

"Wouldn't let him hear you say that...." 

"I don't care who hears me!" A bite of the cake and he added, "Not one bit!" 

She reached for her own slice, taking a bite as she decided, "Then that is one thing we have in common." "

"But you're always more dressed than I." 

"That," she shot back, "Does not take much." 

"No in between for this one," the cook wandered back, one hand now holding a fresh loaf as her free fingers ruffled the footman's hair affectionately, "Either in his linens or draped in silk like a proper macaroni!" 

Mary let that go, certain she couldn't imagine the man in anything less than a state of undress as she took another bite of cake. 

"They don't respect me," the man whispered playfully,  blinking his jet black eyes. "Do you see?" 

"Do you respect them either?" the question was, Mary found, a genuine one. 

"I would not be without any one of them," his own words seemed more serious in turn, "We are a family here." 

That did not fit with her experience of service, it being herself and her mistress against the many who would snoop and pry and spy if given half a chance. "That must be nice..." 

"And while you are here, you are part of our family!" 

"I have no family," she told him, surprised at her own bluntness. 

"You have your mistress," the footman piled another slice of cake onto her plate, "I think you and she are family to one another." 

"That is different---" 

"No," he shook his head, "I don't think so." 

Mary had no response to that, busying herself instead with the cake, taking another bite and chewing carefully as she thought again of the attentive doctor, the way her mistress seemed to trust him implicitly. Her companion was silent in turn, yet the bustle around them seemed almost companionable, Mary allowing herself to be lulled by it, by his talk of the companionship of servitude, of the family here. The footman's mischief did not seem cruel, after all, even if his manner was a little unusual, but this house seemed like a shrine to all things unusual. 

"What," she asked finally, "Do you make of this snow?" 

"Snowmen." He blinked. "Or snowballs!" 

"That wasn't what I--" The second slice of cake went down as well as the first, Mary deciding that a third would be an indulgence too far as she somewhat regretfully got to her feet. "I should let you get on...." 

"Come and find me," he smiled, standing to bow, "Should you ever wish for silly chatter, cake and tea. Or even brandy."


11

On her return to where Alice lay, sleeping serenely, Mary found herself met by the doctor who looked in turn a little more satisfied with the progress of his patient. In fact, so pleased was he by Alice's peaceful slumber that he told, no, politely commanded Mary that the day was hers to use as she saw fit, that her mistress would sleep, he would watch her and the maid who cared for her mistress every waking moment must take some time to just be. No amount of arguing would shift him from his path and she found herself kindly but definitely dismissed for the day, in a house full of vampires, duchesses and half dressed footmen. 

She thought again of the footman's suggestion that she go exploring, that she should venture out into the wilderness beyond. It did indeed look tempting, now that the danger with her mistress was past, the snow falling lightly as, wrapped tightly in her cloak, she set out into the white. 

Wherever those so-called hellfire caves were if they were there at all, Mary could hardly imagine beneath the still-falling slow but she was a creature of instinct, and a little whiteout brought no fear to her. She would find her way back here blindfolded if she needed to, and the air was fresh, the sky blue despite the snowfall. Indeed, once out of the baffling house, her good senses returned immediately, and she strode with purpose, not feeling the cold greatly as she made her way away from the house. 

There were no prints in the freshly fallen snow, no suggestion that anyone but she trod here and she felt wonderfully intrepid as she went, wishing that the footman with the jet black eyes could see her now. What he was she couldn't know, but he was neither vampire nor wolf nor, she suspected, quite human, with those eyes and that knack of being there. 

In fact, so intent was she on not thinking of him that she stopped suddenly at a sight in the snow, a single hoof print and then, a few feet further on another and another, into the trees ahead. Mary turned and looked behind her yet there were only her own shoe prints, this one-hoofed creature, if creature it was, seemingly appearing from nowhere. 

Perhaps the devil had also fancied a walk that morning. 

Mary refused to feel nervous, quite certain that if she were to meet him she would simply smile and walk on, though why only one print was showing was beyond her. What, after all, would he look like if not a storybook monster, and London was full of those these days. Anyway, if he hopped about on one leg, he was hardly likely to be game for the chase. 

She followed the prints into the trees, glad despite herself that the foliage was not thick, watching as they tramped up trunk and down bark, along boughs and onto the ground. If nothing else, he was nimble. She paused briefly, thinking she saw something, but it was only a deer, stopping to regard her before breaking cover and running across her path and away. 

The devil was no deer, of that she was sure, though the animal could no doubt give the best a run for their money. And then, somewhere, she heard that whistle. The naked - no - near naked footman who she had left in the kitchen with his tea and cake, was somewhere in these trees, though he was no one- hoofed devil, that much she knew. 

"I know," she called upwards, "That you're up there!" 

"Did you follow my hoof print?" His reply came from above, playful and mischievous. 

"I followed something," she responded cautiously, "But I don't believe for one minute--" 

High in the trees above came the sound of movement and then she saw him, climbing swiftly down to occupy a heavy bough just ten feet or so above her head, no longer half naked but now clad in a simple black cloak, boots on his usually bare feet. The footman greeted her with a smile and asked, "Climb up?" 

"What are you doing up there?" she peered up, "What game are you playing?" 

"I am playing the game called being in the house with all those dukes is boring, so let's go and climb a tree," was his response. "Did you get a day off?" 

"I did," she frowned, "Were you listening in?" 

"Not much happens that I don't know about." He scooped up some snow, sprinkling it onto her head. "Can you climb trees?" 

"I can," Mary squinted up, "Give me one good reason why I should?" 

"To prove that a lady's maid isn't all needlework and tiny little cups of tea?" 

"There is nothing tiny," she was already shrugging off the cloak, knowing she would not be able to climb with it, "About my cups." 

"Madam, I am too much of a gentleman to comment!" 

That did it, and without further comment of her own, Mary reached for the nearest branch, pulling herself upwards with little thought for anything other than proving to this whatever-he-was that she was up to the task. 

"You are like a monkey!" He laughed at the observation, even as he added, "And I take back what I said about lady's maids!" 

"So you should," she told him firmly, climbing up further towards him, "Now tell me about these footprints." 

Quite unexpectedly the footman reached down a hand seized Mary's wrist, lifting her effortlessly the last few feet until she was able to settle on the bough beside him, looking out over the wood and through the snow to the opulent house beyond. With a frown he looked down to the now unsullied ground, where only Mary's prints remained and asked, "Hoof prints?" 

"Right there--" she pointed, exclaiming, "How did you do that?" 

That he was not anything approaching normal was now more than clear, and she regarded him closely, searching for the answer. 

"Maybe," he held out his hand, a richly appointed silver brandy flask somehow held in the palm, "I am magic." 

"What," she held her breath then, "Are you?" 

"The man," he smiled, "Who looks after the household." 

He had, she realised, been telling her all along, the key to his identity in those oft repeated words that she had not understood until now. "You're--" 

"Sitting up a tree?" 

"You're the Devil!” 

In reply his eyes opened wide, comically so, and he whispered, "Then where are my horns?" 

"You--" Mary rounded on him furiously then, "How could you play with me like that!” 

"Have some brandy and smile; you are far prettier when you smile." 

At that she lunged at him furiously, telling him hotly, "I am no man's sport, Sir, whether he be the devil himself!" 

Mishael de Chastelaine, the supposed devil himself, reacted too late to save himself from falling clean from the tree, though his arm snatched around Mary's waist and took her with him as he fell, the time seeming to slow in the moments before they hit the snow-covered ground. The breath was knocked from her and it took a moment to realise that she was lying fully atop the master of not only the house but, if rumours were to be believed, the entire underworld as well. He lifted his head, that ridiculously, stupidly handsome head, and pecked a kiss to her lips as though he had every right to do so, as though he were not infuriating, insufferable and not at all as handsome as he thought he was.

"Why," she demanded after a moment to gather herself, "did you just do that?" 

"Because you make me feel very devilish," he grinned, "Wolfish one might say." 

That was when her hand snapped out, catching him across the face before she had even fully registered her intention. "Well!" The exclamation was ridiculous in its shock, and he fell back onto the snow, eyes closed. "Oh bloody hell!"

Only I, Mary realised, could knock out the devil. And be kissed by the devil, or the footman or whatever he was. The man who looks after the household... Of course he was the devil, because life had ceased to be normal when they walked into his house, the house where it snowed in summer and the walls were never where you had left them.

"Wake up," she leaned over him, tapping his face, "For goodness sake, wake up!" That handsome face remained unmoving, slumped against the snow. "Wake up!" The next tap was more of a slap, as she told him, "A maid can't floor the Devil!"

Instead of a reply he gave a long, pained sigh, lips parting slightly, the lips that had been against hers, however briefly, the memory distracting her for a moment before she murmured more gently, "I didn't mean -- please wake up."

"You have murdered me," he whispered, one eye opening. "Killed me dead."

"Murdered the Devil?" she raised an eyebrow at that, "I don't think so! Unless," she added, peering closer, "You aren't really the Devil after all...."

"I am!”

"Dead, or the Devil?" 

His reply, as though it was utterly normal, was to peck another kiss to her lips, murmuring softly, "The latter..."

"Then what is the Devil," she found herself drawn to those eyes again, the ones that watched her so closely, "Doing kissing maids?"

"Enjoying himself," Mishael de Chastelaine's voice was smooth as velvet, full of mischief, "You have very kissable lips..."

"And they are not," Mary was, she realised, still lying atop him, "Yours to kiss, sir!"

"Then you kiss me instead?"

"And lose my soul?" She should probably be more scared, but her emotions were currently moving between intrigued and annoyed and back again at rapid speed. 

"Or your heart?"

"That," she fixed him with a look, "Is not for losing." 

“One kiss," Mishael's hand stole into her hair, “Will do you no harm."

"One," she decided, the whole matter best over and done with as she bent closer to press her lips to his. Once there however it was not quite as simple as she had thought to pull away again, his lips soft and enticing beneath hers.

If those lips were to part, Mary assured herself, she would stop him, would end the kiss yet even as she felt them part, coaxing hers to do the same, she remained in the devil's embrace. She lost track of how long they remained that way, the kiss lengthening as she remarked detachedly to herself that kissing the devil was a more pleasurable experience than she would have thought. His hand was soft against her back, tangled in the hair she didn't remember unpinning, the other caressing her waist gently. 

"That," she murmured when she finally had to break for air, "Is not fair."

"Nice is different to fair..."

"I should not," she was suddenly overwhelmingly aware, "Be here with you like this." What her mistress would have to say she could well imagine, what she herself should be thinking should alone be enough to have her scrambling to her feet. 

"You should!" He leapt up, reaching for her hand. "We fit together so well."

"I fit with no one." Mary shook her head, "I need to get back."

"Will we see each other again?" 

"We'll be leaving once the snow clears," she half answered the question, brushing down her dress. "I need to get back to my mistress."

"Can I call on you in London?"

His words were unexpected and she frowned. "Surely the Devil has more important things to do than call on maids?"

In reply, Mishael blushed, that sculptor's idea of handsome taking on a look of bashfulness that she was sure must be anything but genuine. 

"It is not the job that intrigues, it is the lady." The smile that followed that was somehow too guileless and he bowed low, telling Mary,  "You have made me a happy man today, Miss Lambert; it is too rare nowadays."

"Well," she had nothing she could say in face of that, feeling her own cheeks colour and hating the fact, "At least I have been of service." With that she turned, intent upon following her prints back through the snow.


12

Through the thirty six hours that had passed since he brought Alice home from the village, Faulkner had not left the side of the woman who had been his first - only -  love. Sitting beside her bed, sometimes with her maid in attendance, sometimes her perfumed stepdaughter, he tended the fever until it broke, watched as the sweat on her forehead no longer glistened, heard the gentle rhythm of her peacefully slumbering breath.

Of the other visitors to the house, including his closest friend's newly-arrived party, he saw nothing and of the violent attacks in the land beyond, he knew nothing, focused only on this most important of patients. Frail, painfully thin, drawn and sad the woman in the bed was not the vibrant girl he had once known and he wondered at what her life had been to bring her to this, yet that golden hair, those blue eyes were not diminished by her ill health and her beauty, sparkling and peerless, had not been stolen from her.

Faulkner wondered now, as the darkness deepened and the night set in, whether they might somehow renew the friendship they had lost. He would put aside the stinging mockery of her last letter, would pretend he had never loved her more than life itself and would call her friend if she would but allow it.

And then, perhaps, she would confide in him the truth behind the dark bruises that bloomed on her skin... if it was as he suspected, he could not promise such kindness to the husband he already somehow knew was responsible for steeling the joy from Alice Tyhurst's life. A murmur shook him from his reverie, those blue eyes flickering open to meet his. "Robert..."

"Good evening," the doctor leaned forward in his chair at the head of the bed, touching her hand softly. "You have rested, finally."

"I thought...." she was trying to focus with effort, "I thought you were a dream...."

"No," the word was a breath and he curled his fingers around her own, protective and comforting. For a moment Faulkner was silent and then he told Alice, "I have been beside you since you fell ill, and will stay beside you until you are well."

His words had not, he realised immediately, brought the reassurance he had hoped to convey, a flicker of something he couldn't quite read across her face as she murmured, "Thank you for your care."

"We are friends, Alice, whatever-"

Faulkner's words were silenced by the sound of hammering on the front door of the house that seemed to echo throughout every inch of the building, a man yelling in furious German for the door to be opened now, that they are coming. The very air seemed to darken with the unexpected drama of his arrival and somewhere dogs barked frantically, horses whinnying in the stables loud enough for it to be heard here in the bedroom.

The Scot squeezed Alice's hand, silently promising her that she was safe as, outside,  the air was filled momentarily with something like the sound of fabric, no, wings flapping, though the doctor could hardly think of what sort of creature might make such a sound. On instinct he was on his feet and at the window in seconds, pulling the shutters closed and pushing the bolts into place. 

Whatever was happening, whatever this was, Faulkner knew, nothing would touch Alice again.

"What is it?" He heard the fear in her voice, saw her wince as she tried to sit up.

"It's all right," yet it wasn't, voices raised in alarm inside the house too and he thought of the gun in his own room, already sure he would not leave Alice in order to retrieve it. From without the hammering on the door sounded again and then abruptly ceased as it was opened, the newly arrived visitor no doubt glad for sanctuary. 

"Help me up...." Alice demanded, "Something is coming...." 

"No," he returned to her, "Stay here, you're safe."

"None of us," came the chilling murmur, "Is safe. Robert--"

"With me, you are," he told her, knowing it to be true. "Believe me."

"I am not," the sudden burst of fire from her surprised him, a flicker of the girl he had once known, "Lying here while goodness knows what is going on--"

As Faulkner opened his mouth to speak there came an almighty clap of thunder from above, a blast of arctic cold air billowing down the chimney and causing the flames in the grate to gutter, the candles in the room to flicker. He found her hand in his again in response, glad now for her unexpected return to wakefulness as he held up his hand for silence, listening to a skittering, clawing something that seemed to be in the chimney.

He felt her holding her breath, hand tightening in his, a quiet whisper following of "Help me stand..."

Instead, he impetuously pressed a kiss to her hand before releasing it and then, with his finger held to his lips, Faulkner approached the fireplace. The flames were too low, easy enough to avoid or even extinguish for whoever, whatever was in the chimney and for a man of his extravagant height he moved with an unexpected lightness, silently taking the poker from the hearth. For a moment he cast a glance back at Alice, seeing not the fretful, frightened woman he had met at breakfast in what seemed like another world, but something more determined in those blue eyes entirely. It was with that thought that he dropped to one knee and thrust the poker with all his strength into the chimney in the direction of that scuttling, scraping invader.

He felt the weapon make contact with something, tearing through flesh and glancing off bone as whatever it was let out an inhuman shriek that seemed to rattle the windows. Then there was no weight, nothing on the poker at all and he withdrew it and stood, stepping swiftly back as a shower of jet black ash plummeted into the flames, which burst into dramatic life once more. Whatever had been in that chimney, Faulkner knew, it was not human at all.

Despite his previous words Alice had pushed herself to sit fully, legs carefully moving so her feet could find the floor, a frustrated sound as her body protested. He needed the guns, he knew, yet he also knew that he couldn't leave her here alone, that whatever that was would not be alone either.

"Help me," the words were almost an order, "We will go together."

"I took a liberty in kissing your hand," Faulkner was a model of politeness, though there was a slight gleam in his eyes as he crossed to the bed and took her elbow, "I hope you will not hold it against me before we have successfully seen tomorrow's dawn."

"I need something," he knew instinctively from her expression that she did not mind, had not minded, "From my bag....."

"You don't-" Faulkner shook his head. "Where is it?"

She gestured and at her direction he helped her towards it, where she murmured thanks before beginning to rummage. "Could you pass me my dressing gown?"

"I am so terribly sorry," that seemed to pull him up, remembering that she was a woman in her nightgown, that he really should have offered to find her maid or - no, one could hardly find the maid when creatures from a nightmare were coming down the chimneys. Instead, Faulkner retrieved the dressing gown, even as he said, "What are you looking for?"

Alice paused to accept the gown, allowing him to help when the movement jarred her back without answering his question, something slipped into the pocket a moment later. "Lets go."

"Take this," he held out the rather lethal-looking fire poker and admitted, "I have a blade."

"I will try," she took the poker, "Not to slow us down."

Faulkner fell silent then, opening the door and peering out into the hallway, where the candles still burned bright. The house was filled with the sounds of panic, with screams and noise and for a moment he wondered at the fate of Dan, even he knew that if anyone would ride out such drama with a beer and a laugh, it was the one-time resurrectionist. Instead the doctor concentrated on Alice, on getting them both safely to his room and the hard-to-explain arsenal of weapons contained therein.

Walking must surely pain her but she made no complaint, only asking, "What is your plan?"

"I have a gun in my room," Faulkner winced at the understatement, "Some guns, and a rifle; my plan is to get us there, get us armed and keep us alive until dawn. Beyond that, I have yet to decide."

"Do you think guns will work against whatever this is?" the question was a shrewd one, the matter something he had not allowed himself to contemplate.

"I think in these terms... A bullet might not kill it, but take the top of its head off, and it can't bite you anyway."

"If it comes to running," there was a ghost of a smile on her lips then, "I think they'll win."

"It would hardly be proper for me to carry you--" even as he spoke a window at the far end of the hallway smashed inwards with that sounds of beating wings and a moment later Faulkner had slung Alice over his shoulder and was running along the corridor, calling, "I apologise, Miss Tyhurst, it won't be for long!"

"Go faster--" there was fear in her voice then, and he picked up his pace, even as he apologised again for the discomfort it must surely bring her. What was chasing them she couldn't see, it seemed to be engulfed in blackness, shadows swirling around something, some creature that must be nightmarish, that was gaining on them, the shadows stretching before it. "Robert---"

The candles behind went out as that thing passed them, the wings beating, the flames at the wicks ahead guttering low and he told himself that they would outrun whatever it was, that it was no match for them. It was this thought that spurred the doctor on towards his own room, to block out the sounds of terror from below, the howl of the creature in pursuit, the sulphurous smell that engulfed them and the knowledge of its proximity as the candles ahead began to splutter and die. He felt Alice clinging to him, sensed her urging him on, and the thought that he couldn't let any harm come to her, not now that he had found her again, kept him focused, keeping him going onwards towards at least semi safety.

"Close your eyes!" Faulkner didn't know why he told her that, why he didn't want her to see what ever was following yet it seemed important, somehow. A well-placed kick opened the door to his room and he threw himself through it, the same foot kicking it closed as they landed in a tumbled heap on the rug. He helped her back to her feet as soon as he could, needing to see her face, that she was safe, fear evident in her eyes as she clung to him a moment more.

"It's all right," the doctor promised, his hand flicking out to turn the key in the door as a worrying silence filled the hallway outside. "We're all right."

If she disagreed she didn’t voice it, staying close, eyes closing briefly as if to gather herself. For a second Faulkner watched and then he took her face in his hands to whisper, "Did I hurt you?"

Her eyes opened again then, and he found himself caught by them as she whispered in turn, "No more than could be helped."

"Your room," he managed the hint of a smile, bright blue eyes gleaming for a second, "Is much grander than mine."

"You should ask," she told him seriously, "To swap."

"I've slept on the floor of an Ottoman slaughterhouse, Miss Tyhurst," was the doctor's honest reply, "And a less grand room means a smaller fireplace... one less thing we have to worry about defending."

"What were those things?" She was still studying his face, though what she was searching for he couldn't fathom, "What do they want?"

"I don't know," he murmured, meeting her gaze as his words died away.

A memory then, strong and vivid, of the last time they had been this close, the look in her eyes, he was sure, very much the same as now, though it couldn't possibly be so. Alice would not look at him now, after the years had robbed him of his fire, his youth, and see anything other than the society doctor, the establishment pillar. There was nothing other than that to see now. 

Even as he thought that her hand ghosted against his cheek, a murmured apology following a moment later. Without even meaning to he reached up and caught that same hand, prolonging the touch he had so missed, had longed for... had tried and failed to forget.

"If we're going to die here tonight," her words were soft, no hint of fear, "I want you to know I am sorry."

"We are not," of that he was certain, he had survived too much to die in a genteel bedroom in the British countryside, "And I am sorry, Alice, for everything..."

"Shh...." she was trembling, his hold on her tightening instinctively, to protect her, to keep her close. He would never lose her again after tonight, Faulkner knew, would not let this most precious friend slip away.

"When it started to snow," her words seemed to weave a spell around them, "I thought of you."

"And I of you," he admitted, remembering the first flakes that fell, how he had travelled to the inn and heard her voice so clearly he thought she was there in the room though she had not yet left the house.

"My boy...."

"That girl..." So many snowstorms had engulfed him since then, so many lands, so many dangers and always with her voice, her face... that scent of roses in the air. She was always there.

"I thought she was dead," came the murmured admission, "I have been dead..."

"And yet here we are... alive; together."

"Together..." If he closed his eyes he would be back on that cliff top, heat and promise between them despite the snow, though her frame was painfully thin now, weak and bruised through years of god only knew what treatment.


"Would it be a dreadful imposition if--"  He fell silent, finishing the question as a thought that she could never hear... I kiss you? he couldn't ask that, what sort of a man asked that? She had made a fool of him, abandoned him, laughed at him, been the only woman he had ever allowed himself to love. And now she was here again, and he could not stand the thought of losing her again.

Even as his thoughts raged her lips touched his, soft, hesitant, as if she had sensed his unspoken words after all. In that moment his worries were banished, doubts silenced and he kissed her in return, the years melting away yet it was over too soon, the need for breath breaking his lips from hers, apology stilling at the look in her eyes as she whispered, “Robert...."


It was reckless and possibly stupid, the doctor knew even as he brought his lips to hers, heart thundering in his breast, the feel of her kiss ridiculously, wonderfully familiar even after all these years. This kiss was more heated, Alice's hand in his, her slight frame sinking against him, soft in his arms. They would not die tonight, not now, not after this, Faulkner knew, there was too much still to live for. Finally they broke again, her forehead pressed to his, those blue eyes closed before they opened again to meet his.


"I should probably barricade the door..." he murmured, almost amusing himself at how prosaic he could be. "And you should rest..."

"Rest?"

"You're not strong..." Faulkner scooped her into his arms, her weight inconsequential as he carried her to the bed and laid her atop the covers, "Rest; I'll secure the room."

"Be careful," she caught his hand, "Don't take any risks."

"I am too reliable for that," the doctor replied with a smile, squeezing her hand in turn before going to shutter the windows, even as the sounds of gunshots could be heard downstairs. Moving more quickly, he banked up the fire in the grate and then, feeling absurdly showy, shifted a heavy dresser in front of the door with rather less effort than it might have taken when he was that boy all those years ago. He could feel her gaze on him, those eyes that so captivated him even after all this years watching his every movement.

This room was safe, Faulkner knew, easy to escape from should they need to go through the window thanks to an orangery that extended below, yet easy too to defend. Better here than the glass-sided ballroom or the drawing rooms with their enormous windows and vast fireplaces. Please, he asked silently, please let Daniel Miller be somewhere as safe as this.

"I think," her words echoed his own thoughts, "We are as safe as we can be...."

"Your stepdaughter-" Faulkner suddenly realised, eyes widening as he turned back to Alice, sure she must think him rather thoughtless.  

"Will not lack for people to defend her," came the quiet reply, and he realised in that moment how little love there was lost between the two women.

"Your maid was walking with our host earlier," he said, simply to safe her any awkwardness, little that happened in the house escaping the watchful doctor. "I believe she will be well cared for."

"I had not thought," she looked abashed at that, "If anything were to happen to Mary--"

"In the company of the man who claims to be the devil?" He shook his head, allowing himself a smile as he opened the dresser and took out a small wooden trunk, "You need not worry for her safety, even if Mr de Chastelaine is more ringmaster than Beelzebub."

He felt rather than saw her nod, felt too the sudden wave of weariness as she sank back against the pillows. All they had to do was survive until dawn... it would be easy.

"Would you--"

Anything, he wanted to say, though he simply asked, "Would I?"

"Come here?" the words were a whisper, those eyes fixed on him once more. "Just be near me."

"Of course," Faulkner nodded, bringing the wooden gun case and setting it down beside the bed before he sat beside Alice, somewhere between formality and intimacy. As another gunshot sounded outside he took her hand, studying her face closely and seeing that girl she had been still in her eyes, even through the fog of sadness that had descended there. "I'll wager you did not expect life as a royal physician to be so eventful."

"There is a lot more to you than a royal physician," she told him with certainty, fingers twining with his.

A little espionage, the occasional acquisition of an old master... nothing too eyebrow raising, he was certain, even as he replied, "I do tend the occasional politician and bluestocking too, it's true."

The ghost of a smile, before she shifted a little closer, the move barely noticeable as she lay her head against his shoulder. For a moment Faulkner's eyes closed and then he tilted his head slightly to let it rest against Alice's hair, savouring her closeness.

"I am sorry," her words were soft, "For whatever it was that I did all those years ago...."

"Shh..." Her hand tightened on his and she fell silent, the room still enough that he could hear her breathing, each breath in and out as she could surely hear his. "I missed you," he whispered, quite unintentionally, "Every day."

He felt her tense, heard the edge to her voice as she told him, "You know there was no need to."

"I couldn't turn my feelings off," he replied, a slight edge to his own words, the rest of the sentence hardly needing to be voiced.


"You made a very good show of doing so!"


"I made no show," the doctor told her, thinking this a very rum affair given the tone, the content of her last letter. "What show there was, Alice, came from you!"

"How can you say that?" her cheeks, so pale moments before, were now flushed, "I waited for you-- waited and waited, and you did not come!"

"Did not come?" Faulkner lifted his head, turning to look at her askance. "Come where precisely? I sent you letters, you never replied... I visited your husband's house in the city you had me sent away! We shall not dwell on the letter you sent that advent, Alice, let no more be said."

"There were no letters!" Anguish and outrage filled the air, "Only my own. From you, there was nothing, not one word, Robert!"

He fell silent, the one thing he knew for certain being that this woman would not lie; the thought of the alternative was too painful to countenance even as he asked carefully, "You received no word from me? I wrote every week from the day you left for London to when I received your dismissal those months later; pages and pages of silly notes, I-" proposed, he swallowed that word though, "There were letters, Alice."

"I asked you to help me - to meet me--" those blue eyes were awash with confusion then, denial and anger just beneath the surface, "I waited Robert, and I heard nothing."

"No," Faulkner shook his head, searching her gaze, "Alice, I heard nothing from you; I was desperate when I read of your betrothal... did you not receive my offer of marriage?"

"Your--" something seemed to crumble within her at that, words trailing off as she gave a tiny shake of her head.

"The letter you sent... you asked me to let you move on with your life... I only did as you asked..." his own voice was a whisper.

"I wrote no such letter!"

"The writing was yours," he closed his eyes for a moment, well aware that there were people in his own sphere who could mimic any writing, any signature. "From the moment your father passed away, I believe you and I were played false..."

"Are you telling me," the hurt and hope in her voice was almost painful, "That you did not ignore my letters?"

"I received only one, and I believe now that it was sent by another," the thought was too horrendous, the years lost to them too painful. "If I had known you needed me, I would have been there."

"I don't understand--"

"I wrote to you, you to me," the explanation was simple, devastatingly so and the doctor's usually placid blood boiled with it. "Our letters were intercepted and someone, perhaps your husband, perhaps not, took it upon themselves to reject me on your behalf. That is all there is to understand."

"No--" he could see in her eyes though that she knew it to be true, the realisation that things could have been so very different, the betrayal and misery written clear across her face.

"It's all right," the words were firmer, the facade of the society doctor shoved aside in favour of something a little more dramatic and he drew Alice into his arms, a hug hardly something Robert Faulkner was used to even as he shared one with her. He felt her cling to him, and at that he held her yet closer, hushing the whispered apology that was now even more unnecessary.

What this meant for them he hardly knew, could not say, but he thought of those years of danger, of seeking the next job, the next risk just to be anywhere but near her, risking death, chancing it, daring it to find him. He might never have known, Faulkner realised starkly, might have gone to the grave believing she had thrown him away. And yet she had not, far from it, instead asking for him, for his help, though for what he could only too clearly guess at given her sorry state.

"If you still want my help," his voice was clear, confident, "I am yours to command, Alice; there will be no more falls." He felt her tense at that, felt the protest well within her, saw any words die on her lips as she lifted her head enough to meet his gaze. Perhaps they should not have kissed, perhaps they should, but when his lips had met hers he barely recognised himself, hardly knew what had become of that dour doctor or the dedicated government man, hardly cared for anything other than the woman in his arms, the girl he had lost. 

"I would have said yes," Alice whispered, "I would have said yes, Robert..." He silenced her with a gentle hush, hardly knowing what the future might bring but sure they would never lose one another again, whether as friends or something more. "What must you think of me... I should have known..."

"In my heart I knew you wouldn't have written that letter, I'm so sorry..." he felt like a failure, a feeling he was hardly used to, he realised. "I let you down, Alice, I won't again..."

What happened then, Faulkner wasn't sure afterwards but the shutters of the room were suddenly in splinters and he pushed Alice back against the covers as something, some amorphous shadow of a thing, sent him sprawling back onto the floor. He had the impression of teeth, of that sulphurous smell, of the sense that he couldn't get his breath, couldn't do anything but be engulfed by the blackness that seemed darker than any night. Even in that drowning, overwhelming darkness though he knew that he must fight, that even if he died here and now, she would not, that he would keep this… thing occupied until Alice was safe from the room.

There was a moment when he thought that everything was over, Alice's face flashing before him, and then suddenly there was a loud pop and the thing, whatever it had been, was gone, showing him once more in that thick, filthy dust. Coughing he turned enough to see Alice on her knees, brandishing the poker and looking greatly surprised that she had succeeded in slaying whatever had been trying to kill him. "Oh goodness...."

Faulkner blinked away the ash that had settled with the destruction of the creature, shaking it from his hair as he went to sit , still trying to find the air to breath again. It seemed to have taken all the strength he possessed in that short fight, his muscles complaining as he pushed himself to reach for her hand. The poker dropped to the floor again, Alice's fingers twining tightly with his own, her free hand stroking over his hair, voice filled with concern as she asked how he was. 

"Surviving," he sank against her despite the bravery of his tone, whispering, "You saved me..."

"It just---" her voice was as shaky as he suspected his own was, “Exploded." She was holding him now and he didn't pull away, wondering in that moment just what it was that this house was facing. 

Whatever it was, wherever it came from, he knew that it could not be allowed to defeat them, that he had fought and won too many battles to die here, especially now he had Alice in his arms again. For a few seconds he let himself rest in her arms, let his breath slow and his limbs regain their strength and then, carefully, Faulkner rose to his feet, bringing Alice with him.

"We are fortunate to be in Catholic country," he told her cryptically as he stooped to scoop up the gun box and then he nodded to the faintest outline of a doorway in the pale blue wall. "We might be a little snug, but would madam consent to join me in a priest hole?"

"People will talk," there was a glimmer then of the humour he had once known so well. 

"People," Faulkner winked as he gathered blankets and pillows, sure they could at least be comfortable, "Will always talk, Miss Tyhurst. The trick is knowing when to listen."


13

In the minutes before the world went a little haywire, Daniel Miller was a happy, if decidedly naked man. It had taken somewhere between thirty and sixty seconds for him to desert the room he had very properly been shown to and make his way to Lucile's quarters and straight into her arms. There should probably have been introductions to be made to fellow guests, formal business to be attended to but instead the couple had been happy to flout such society and were already tucked up in the enormous, flamboyant bed that was Lucile's billet, their embraces heated and their kisses fierce.

"We should hide here," his companion decided between kisses, "All party."

"Debauching each other," Dan decided, hands roaming opportunely.

All night?" he heard the challenge in her tone. 

"At least.” The next few moments were lost in further kisses, the night spent in a barn and the unexpected trip into the village all but forgotten at the promise before them. 

"Debauch me, Miss Wyatt," Dan teased mischievously. "give it all you've got."

"You wouldn't be able to manage all I've got...."

"I'd give it a good try..." Dan moved over Lucile, dipping his mouth to dot kisses on the cool skin of her pale neck, desire for her sending a surge of heat through him, "Very, very hard."

"You are making a joke," she decided, kissing him hard, "But a very true one."

He returned the kiss, savouring the feel of her body as they moved together, the familiar softness of her skin. Tonight wasn't a night for fierce heat, but for languorous hours of lovemaking.  She was, he noticed, in agreement, hands roaming, mouth enticing against his.

She still enchanted him, still left him hungry for her even now their bodies were familiar, their tastes known to one another. He knew how to elicit the sweet sounds from Lucile that made him burn for her, exactly what drove her to the heights of pleasure and she took him there in turn, left him wanting her more with every encounter. 

"No more playwrights and poodles...." Lucile murmured against his lips, the faintest scrape of her teeth as she moved to his jaw. That drew a gasp of anticipation, the sharpness of her fangs just hinted at in the touch. Another hint of pressure and he wondered if she would, if she would go that one step further, crossing where they had not yet gone. How it would be he didn't know, yet didn't the poets write of its decadent eroticism, of the bewitching ardour of it? Heart pounding, Dan whispered Lucile's name, the pace of his movements slow and deep.

She took the encouragement and he felt the welcoming sting as her teeth grazed harder, eyes closing in delicious anticipation. Suddenly though she stopped, tensing. With a frown he opened his eyes again, about to ask her what the matter was.

The words, if words there were, were silenced by an explosion of smashing glass, the room plunged into total darkness for a moment as one of the dark, engulfing creatures that had pursued Alice and Faulkner tumbled down onto the rug, the fire flickering for a few seconds before the flames leaped suddenly higher in its wake. Whatever was hidden in that dense flurry of black let out a scream  likely to pierce an eardrum, howling its fury.

A shriek from Lucile was followed by a loud hiss as she recovered herself, amorousness forgotten now as she told Dan, "Don't touch it!"

"What is it?” He hardly dared move, yet could hardly be more vulnerable, the thing on the rug not a thing of physical depth and solidity, but an amorphous shadow, moving to fast to see yet not moving at all, the sound of wings where no wings could be glimpsed.

"Deadly." Lucile's response did little to cheer him, and he sincerely doubted that the thing, whatever it was, would be vanquished by being smothered in a pillow. 

"Hope it doesn't blush easily..." Dan whispered as he moved slowly onto the bed, sensing that it was watching him, that somewhere in the darkness they were being scrutinised. 

"If you can get to the window," Lucile whispered back, stock still beside him, "Run." 

"You go," Dan took a deep breath, slowly reaching to gather a blanket, well aware of just how vulnerable they were. He moved to kiss Lucile, long and deep and then, as the creature rose, the shadow stretching and lengthening, the scream sounding, Dan let out a bellow to Lucile to run. 

He launched straight at the beast, smothering it in the blanket and forcing it into the fire. It shifted and undulated in the blanket, wings beating unseen but the fabric caught the flame and Dan stumbled back onto the rug as the hellish thing, in an explosion of sulphur, exploded into dust.  Reeling, choking, he was vaguely aware of hands helping him back towards the bed, Lucile's presence as he tried to make sense of what had just happened. There was no sense in it though, nor in the shakiness of his limbs as he collapsed into her arms as still air elsewhere erupted into muffled screams and sounds of attack. "I told you," Dan's voice was a gasp, hoarse and trembling, "To run."

"You should know by now," came the reproachful response, even as gentle hands stroked his hair, "That I am not one to be told." Dan managed a smile, savouring this return, however brief, to contentment as the world outside seemed to be collapsing. "You need to get out," Lucile was telling him then, "Whatever is down there is not good."

"Me?" She made it sound horribly... singular and he lifted his head, kissing her deeply before he said, "We need to get out; throw some clothes on..." For a moment he thought of Faulkner, wondering if he was safe, yet if he knew one thing, it was that the doctor was a man who could take care of himself and anyone who was lucky enough to be in in the vicinity of the man he thought of as a brother.

Eschewing stays and petticoats Lucile located her chemise, dress following a moment later, her expression more serious than he had ever seen it.

"Now get yourself safe," Dressed if more than a touch dishevelled, Dan drew his lover into his arms, kissing her even as his mind reeled, mentally mapping what little he knew of the house. He wouldn't tell her that he had no intention of leaving, of course, that he would stay here and help those innocent souls who likely had less experience at dealing with this sort of drama than he. "And I'll see you when we've sent these things back to hell."

"I am not leaving you," Lucile's tone was one that would not be argued with, "Who knows what trouble you would end up in."

"Then you make me one promise," he pulled open the dresser, throwing various pistols onto the bed before he let a rather hungry look sweep over her figure, "Leave your stays behind more often." With a wink, Dan threw Lucile a pistol, "And don't shoot anyone Scottish."

"I know," she assured him, and he paused to reflect how, even in this crisis, she looked very good with a gun in her hand, "How to handle a weapon."

"Then let's go," he told her with a kiss. "And save the day."

14

"I think," Grace observed the towering snow structure that was taking shape on the wintery lawn, "That this will be the largest snowman ever made." A perhaps too-innocent smile played over her lips then as she added, "If only we could reach the top to make it even higher..."

Renaud stood back, regarding the sculpture with a shrewdly narrowed eye, sharp white fangs chewing thoughtfully at the inside of his lip for a moment. He would remember he had fangs one day, he told himself as he gave a wince of discomfort, and stop chewing his lip in moments of thoughtfulness. 

"Perhaps you might hop onto my shoulder for a little more height," the playwright said eventually, returning his hands to the luxuriant fur muff he carried for a second. He might no longer feel the cold, after all, but he was still a gentleman of fashion and he looked to the little girl with a beaming smile, taking in her own matching garment, as well as the fur coat the poodle at her side wore. 

"Perhaps I might," she agreed, before adding solemnly, "Or there might be another way..."

Renaud frowned, the look of mischief that glittered in his young friend's eyes wonderfully familiar and he asked, "Another?"

The girl gave a solemn nod, and then, as he watched, she seemed to grow taller, her head higher than it had been a moment before. It was only then that he realised that it was not that she had grown but that her feet were leaving the ground, until she hovered there with a triumphant grin on her face, looking down at him from at least a head higher than himself. 

"Choux!" Renaud gave an excited clap, voice tinkling with laughter. "You are a butterfly!"

"Would you like to try?" 

"Is the world round?" Renaud gives a little clap of excitement, "How does one do it? Tell!"

"You have to think it," Grace told him, a smile breaking over her face, "You have to feel it."

Renaud was good at feeling things, he knew; after all, he was not only gorgeous, but a man with an instinct for rouge and fashion, for gemstones and perfume and knowing exactly how to put a look together. Then there was his celebrated farces, doling out generous helpings of bawdy comedy to every class whether English or French. For a stunning Frenchman with a flare for words and fashion, flying should be easy. He was an artiste, after all.

Grace was watching him expectantly, even as she warned, "It will take practice...."

"Not for me!" He scooped up Sabine and placed her gently inside the fur muff, closing his eyes and merrily waiting to ascend.

"Your feet," came the laughed response a moment later, "Are supposed to be off the ground!"

Renaud opened one hazel eye and peered down at his feet, seeing the patent leather shoes with their enormous silver and sapphire buckles set well and truly on the snow. Undaunted he closed his eyes again and pictured himself flying, soaring in fact. He heard the sound of Grace very studiously saying nothing, no doubt in awe of his quick and easy mastering of the technique that took others ages.

"See, choux," Renaud announced, opening both eyes and unable to stop his ill-chosen words before they tumbled from his lips, "Some of us are just born talented!"

"Very talented indeed," Grace told him with a laugh, "At being on the ground!"

"Oh, this is too much!"

"You are not thinking properly," the girl took pity on him then, lowering herself a little and reaching out a hand to him. "I will help you."

In return he reached up and took her cool, small hand, the enormous sapphire on Renaud's own finger catching the moonlight for a second that he found most wonderfully distracting.

"Concentrate,"  Grace chided, "Look at me."

"This was a gift from her Late Majesty," the Frenchman sighed, mind dancing happily back to those heady days at the Petit Trianon. "Did I ever tell you of the time she and I and Polastron--" The look on the little girl's solemn face was enough to silence even the flamboyant playwright and he decided, "Perhaps I did tell you..."

"Do you want to fly?"

"But, choux, we were herding sheep! Little royal sheep, and Sab--" he waved his free hand, "Flying, oui, of course!"

"Hold my hand," she instructed, tone brooking no argument, "And look at me. Think of nothing but being in the air." This time he did as he was told, watching her with all the seriousness he could muster, which was never very much nowadays. "Now," she instructed, hand tightening as she slowly began to rise, "Come with me."

She would not be able to lift him, the thought was ridiculous; she was a girl of eight or nine, he a full grown man carrying a poodle and a considerable weight in silk, lace and jewellery. For a moment Renaud almost laughed, almost scrubbed her hair affectionately and told her it would come in time and then the moment was lost because his feet were no longer on the ground, but hovering a little above it. Her gaze never left his, blue and intense and burning into his as she reminded him, "Feel it."

"Mistress Sabine must not fall--" he clutched the poodle close to his chest, torn between wonder and fear.

Concentrate!"

Another deep breath and, with the dog safe in her fur cocoon and Grace's gaze matching his own, Renaud finally allowed himself to concentrate, to forget gossip and jewels and rouge and think only of the slow, careful ascent. They were, he realised, nearly as high as the snowman's head now, and still rising, the ground growing further away with each moment.

"Oh choux," he whispered, a tumble of excitable French following as he wondered again at this finest of friends.

"This," she assured him, "This is nothing!"

"I am but a novice!"

"Shall we go higher?"

"Oui!"

Her grip tightened, impossibly strong for one so young, and then the snowman was far below them, Grace guiding him effortlessly upwards. She truly was magical, Renaud knew, the angel sent to him to learn of this strange, wonderful world in which he found himself.

"If we wanted to," she was telling him, "We could land on the roof!"

"Take me there!"

There was a tug and then he was not just rising but flying of sorts through the air, though with less grace than his clearly more experienced companion. Of course, he knew that everything Fabien Renaud did had some measure of grace, so he was not a total loss. The yellow silk, fur muff and cloak would look wonderful from the ground, at least. Even as he had the thought he felt himself dip a little, jolting him to focus, to concentrate as the roof drew closer. He did not notice the darkening clouds above, nor hear the ominous rumble of thunder, let alone see the shapes that moved in those dark clouds, silhouettes on the moon.

"How did you like it?" Grace asked eagerly as they landed, the roof smooth and snow-covered beneath their feet.

"You are truly a marvel, little choux - you fly as well as inspire playwrights!"

The girl opened her mouth to reply, but instead frowned, fingers digging into his hand so tightly he almost cried out. Instead though he followed her gaze, eyes narrowing at the strange shapes in the night, black against black, moving fast. A moment later the head of that nightmarish tempest burst through the storm clouds, screaming shapes of amorphous darkness hurling themselves at the windows of the house below as the air filled with the sounds of wings, leather beating on leather.

"We need to go," the girl declared, “Now."

Renaud, however, was frozen in place, eyes wide, a hundred memories of the Terror flooding over him, wrenching fear growing in his breast.

"Come on!”

"Go..." the word was a whisper, confused and a little lost. "Where could we go?"

"Anywhere," came the hushed answer, "We can fly right out of here--"

"What of our friends? Mr Hogan--"

"She will take care of him," Grace shook her head impatiently, "There is nothing we can do."

"He would not leave us to.. I do not know what this is, choux, but he would not."

"Then he is a fool," the blue eyes were ice cold then, the girl before him seeming so much older than her slight years, "We must run, we have no choice."

"I am terrified," voicing the fear might, he hoped, push it aside but it did no such thing, the sickness in his stomach growing, "But I did not run in France, and I cannot run now. You take yourself and Sabi to safety, little choux, and I will see what a dandified playwright can do to help a strapping innkeeper and his girl!"

"You cannot go in there alone," Grace protested, "I will not hear of it!"

"I will not be alone," his cheer sounded forced even to Renaud, "I will have my perfume to keep me company!"

"I cannot leave you," the blue eyes blazed with determination then, "You will not come out of there if I do!"

"And I will not let you join me," Renaud pressed a kiss to Grace's hair, bundling the dog into her arms gently as he looked across the roof, keenly seeking out the slopes and plateaus where there would be a hatch into the house below.

He felt rather than saw her follow, the constant presence that he was not sure he could do without now, even as he wondered what lay ahead, what terrors had come to this place so unexpectedly. Whatever they were though he would weather them, for the friend who had never blinked an eye when Renaud went from consumptive to vampire, who had risked life and limb to see them safely in that barn just one evening earlier. No doubt he was quite able to look after himself, but a little gorgeous help never hurt anyone.

"Don't," came the soft warning, "Let them touch you."

"In this silk? They had better not even try!"

"You aren't thinking of going down the chimney then?" Grace’s tone was almost teasing.

"It is not Christmas," Renaud flinched at a gunshot from below, "So not tonight!"

"Don't," all humour was gone then, "Do anything stupid. Please."

"You would not let me, choux," Renaud paused at the outline of a hatch in the roof. "You are my guardian angel, after all."

"I'm no angel," came the denial, "But I will make sure you are safe."


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