The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 4

The Marquis shields me from the other serpents. I can’t bring myself to stand, tasting mud in my mouth, my fingers clawing the pasty earth, the rain battering my back.

I try to tell myself this isn’t real, but every bit of my body feels the reality. Serpents squirm, some tangling with each other and building a slimy circle around the Marquis and me. They look like him, the torsos of men with monster faces, and serpent tails.

Suddenly, one of them launches toward the Marquis, whose long claws shoot out from his fingertips and slash the creature while it’s still in the air. It falls to the ground, writhing and whistling, but only a second later another one swings forward.

The Marquis’ tail coils around my body, his dragon scales wet and slippery as it slides on my skin, tightening until it immobilizes my arms along my torso. He lifts me in the air, away from the snakes. I close my eyes tightly to reduce the vertigo as the tail’s jerks scramble my brains.

When I manage to open them again the Marquis is high on the curve of his tail, holding me even higher. I panic as I watch his claws slash at incoming offensives. Snakes fall left and right, and the ground begins to spin away from me as the Marquis pirouettes and drives me higher up in the air. Gravity seems to pull at my stomach, it feels like a falling rock.

The Marquis turns his face to me from beneath, his blister-like eyes apparently bleeding, as well as his black lips. One of the attackers takes advantage of this break in the Marquis’ focus and jumps at him, thrusting its teeth in the muscle between his neck and his shoulder.

His whistle stabs my eardrums, but even though his pain is obvious his tail doesn’t slacken off me. His sways are jerky as he retreats with me towards the manor that I’ve tried so hard to escape, while his torso dashes forward. He bites the snakes again and again, swift like a huge cobra. He’s stronger and faster than them, so fast that his attacks add to my vertigo.

Once we’re inside the chilly manor, the doors thud closed. The Marquis sets me gently on the cold floor, his tail unwinding from my body, but my skin still crawls after its touch. I remain lying on my back on the granite, my eyes open and my head spinning with the vaulted ceiling above.

“Why, Saphira?” The Marquis heaves. “Why did you do something so reckless?”

I roll on the side to look at him. He’s on the floor too, supporting his weight on his palms, his flesh now transparent and his veins visible through it. He’s becoming a man again, his body gaining heat, and his face morphing from a monster to a beautiful human.

“I couldn’t resist the temptation,” I murmur. The sight of him transforming fascinates me, and my mouth remains open after I’ve spoken.

“Temptation?” He looks at me with a frown, blood dripping from his shoulder.

“You’re hurt.”

“No, don’t change the subject.” He shakes his head slowly, strands of damp hair falling over his forehead. “What were you tempted by?”

“Freedom.”

He bends his head and hunches, baring his teeth in pain while his tail begins to split like a snake tongue. With a cry he throws his head back and spans like a bow. My breath catches. His tail splits into legs, ripping and bleeding until human sinews replace the serpent muscle. In a matter of seconds, the wounds close as thighs and calves take shape.

“Oh my God,” I whisper, staring in awe.

Panting hard, the Marquis drops naked on the floor, looking like a marble sculpture. His flawless skin, his lean muscles and his youthful profile stand in contrast with the monster from only moments before, but they also prove he’s not a simple man. No human can be this beautiful. The wound between his head and his shoulder now yawns wider, bloody, looking painful. My heart clenches.

“We need to get that cleaned up ASAP,” I say. “And drain the venom out.”

“The venom won’t do anything to me.” He breathes with difficulty and tries to stand, but he drops right back on his palms. He spits blood, and I panic.

“It doesn’t look like it. It looks like you’re going to die.”

“If I died, would you care?” With his head still hanging he turns his face to me, revealing the ghost of a grin. His pitch black eyes show exhaustion and pain.

I scramble up, grab his arm and swing it around my neck, winding my other arm around his waist. He puts a foot down, the muscles in his thigh flexing strong as he stands, which is great help, because he seems to weigh a ton. But that’s the last display of strength the Marquis can offer.

Blood drips on the floor as we begin to move down the hall. The Marquis limps, and I notice a wound in his hip. The corridor turns darker with every step, and a glance through the windows lining the outer wall shows heavy clouds placing the moon in shadow. The storm roars outside, and for a moment I visualize all those snakes from before flooding the manor.

“They’ll eventually crawl their way inside.” Panic’s sharp in my words.

“My study,” the Marquis mutters. “We’ll be safe there, no cracks, no openings. We’ll start the fire to block the chimney.”

We increase our pace toward the high double doors as the slimy sound of serpent slither begins to close in on us.

***

We make it to the study, the Marquis leaning on the pillar by the entrance as I push the doors shut. I help him to the couch, and hurry to the outline of the fireplace.

“Where’s the firewood?” I spin in place, the semi-obscurity making it hard on my eyes.

“No wood. A lever in the centre of the mantelpiece, it looks like a candle. Feels like one too if you can’t see well.”

I grope, find it and pull. What must be wood logs rolls into the fireplace from somewhere inside it, the sound followed by a splash and a sizzle. Fire bounces to life, making me take a few steps back. I’m amazed the Marquis should use technology in so vintage a place as this study. The warmth hits my numb cheeks, making blood prickle through them again.

I turn to look at the Marquis’ naked figure, his arms spread on the rest of the leather couch, displaying the marble beauty of his body. He resembles a work of art in the firelight, marred by trails of blood that trickle from his shoulder down his chest and from his hip down his sculpted thigh.

I rip my eyes from him and scan the place for anything I can use for his wounds. I identify the corner liquor cabinet, grab the vodka and soak a starched white napkin with it. I hurry to the couch with the napkin in one hand and the bottle in the other, and curl one leg under me as I sit facing the Marquis and pressing the napkin on the wound on his shoulder. He winces and squeezes his eyelids.

My gaze glides over his profile. His eyes are hooded as he relaxes his head back on the rest of the couch, now that the sting of alcohol is more bearable.

“You saved me,” I whisper.

He squints at me, as if he only just remembered. “Why did you run, Saphira?”

My eyes wandering all over his face, I realize the pain he goes through in his transformation. A revelation hits me – The Marquis may be a monster, but Kieran Slate is a victim. Emotion swells in my chest as my gaze lingers on his white, bloodless lips, then on his tormented black eyes.

“You weren’t exactly nice to me,” I whisper.

He looks sad at me, maybe hurt. “But why try to elope with Inspector Boy?”

“I . . .”

I move the soaked napkin to the wound on his hip. He winces and hisses, the sinews in his body tightening.

“I wasn’t eloping with him. He offered an alternative. But I’d like you to leave him alone, please,” I dare.

“You still have feelings for him?” He grimaces again at the touch of more alcohol on his wound.

“No, not like that, not anymore. He and I go way back though, he’s . . . say a childhood friend to me.”

Uncomfortable silence settles between us. The fire rustle fills the room, but I’m not sure the burn in my cheeks is because of the heat or because of the awkwardness.

I walk to the corner liquor cabinet again and grab more starched napkins and a bottle of water. My ears perk up, scanning the silence for serpent slither outside. My skin crawls at the memory of it, sending a shudder all through me.

“Are you sure they can’t get in?” I inquire after I’ve returned by the Marquis. Despite his exhaustion, this spot right by his side feels safe.

“Positive. This room is as good as a vault. But returning to the subject of Jeremy Simmons. How come you trusted him, Saphira? He cheated on you in the past, and you’re not one to forgive easily, as far as I know.”

“Uhm, er –” I busy myself soaking another napkin – with water this time – as a pretext to keep my eyes down to what I’m doing and not look into the Marquis’ face. “My situation was desperate, and I’ve known Jeremy all my life. I needed someone, and he was the next best thing.”

“Next best thing to what? Or to whom?”

My heart clenches as I remember that my father, the man I should trust most, is a deranged killer, and my mother a poor soul who keeps her intuition numb with liquor and too many cigarettes.

I force my mind away from the subject and shrug. “Jeanie and Vivien, my best friends, I guess. But I didn’t want to drag them into this horror. Jeremy was already in it.”

“How about your mother? Why isn’t she the one who enjoys your trust most?” The Marquis asks softly. My eyes shoot up at his, and the truth stumbles out of my mouth.

“She’s distant. She always did what she thought was best for me, but somehow she was actually never . . . there.” I look down again to hide the tears that start to well in my eyes. “I now understand why. She always sensed something was mighty off with Dad, and it consumed her emotionally. It still does.”

This is hardly the time for confessions, and thoughts of the serpents remind me of that. I fire a glance to the door. “Are you sure they can’t come in here? It seems so still out there it gives me the creeps.”

“Relax, this room is completely safe. Besides, it’s past midnight. The effect of the moon on the inner serpent is lessening, we’re more controlled now.”

The kindness in his voice sends warmth through me, and I’m wondering if he’s using his powers on me again. If he is, he does it in a wholly different way than before. We search each other’s faces for moments until I kick the conversation back on track, starting to dab the blood off his chest.

“How come this place is crawling with serpent-men? I thought you were the only one.”

“They are my staff.”

My hand freezes mid-dab. “Say what?”

“When I decided to stop working as a hit man for my makers, many of my peers decided to follow,” he explains. “I couldn’t trust people who didn’t share my curse or my secret, I’m sure you understand. As for tonight, full moon lends unbound power to the serpent inside the man. It’s next to impossible to fight the inner monster under the shine of full moon, and we can’t resist transformation.”

Now I understand why Zed left the door to my tower chamber unlocked – the inner demon tormented him, and he needed to get out fast, which unbalanced his otherwise steely focus.

“But they are your men. How come they attacked you?”

“I protected what would’ve been their prey – you –, so I stood their enemy. Tonight they’re slaves to their instincts and don’t acknowledge any other master.”

He protected me. At the risk of his own life. Gratitude fills my heart.

“Thank you so much, Kieran. So much.” I squeeze his hand, searching his beautiful face and hoping to convey the feeling that overwhelms me. A tired smile draws the corner of his sweet mouth, his eyes closing as if to let him take in a pleasant sensation.

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard that name. I cherish it, you know? It’s my only bridge to the human I once was.”

“I cherish it too,” I whisper. “And I won’t use it without your permission.”

“Oh, you have all permission in the world. I like the way it sounds from your mouth.”

He sets his dark eyes on me, soft and kind and intimate. He was cold and even cruel to me before, but somehow I always sensed the good in him. The way he looks at me fills me with affection, and my heart beats in my throat.

***

The study is warm and cosy, the firelight casting a beautiful glow on Kieran’s face. We sit facing each other on the couch.

“But still, I wouldn’t thank me,” he says. “It’s my fault the serpent-men are here in the first place.”

I shake my head. “No, that’s not true. This place was a nest of vipers all along, with my father and his group having raped and killed Catherine. It’s their fault you are here.” I grab his hand with both of mine. “Kieran, this town was a place of morbid mystery until you came along and brought that crime to light. My mother and I, we always sensed something was wrong. To silence that nagging inner voice, she lost herself to liquor, and I – to avoid the same fate – turned to watercolours, oil and canvas. Through painting I searched for something I sensed but couldn’t identify no matter how hard I tried.”

“Is that what you did?” He probes softly.

I bite my lower lip, searching for an example that would best help him understand.

“Remember the painting of the Dark Castle? The one you walked straight to when you first entered my parents’ attic? You said it mirrored my soul. You were right. I’ve been digging in it, portraying it in detail hoping to find something that I now realize didn’t even lie within but without. I was trying to uncover what it was that I sensed.”

“You do have special insight into souls,” he says, his voice low and creamy. “That’s why I had the portrait you made of me brought here and locked in the tower. It made me feel bared.”

I search the depths of his eyes. “You said that portrait was a confession.”

“And that it was. A confession that there was a battered stable boy behind the powerful Marquis. That I wasn’t invincible.”

Scenes of him in his huge serpent form slashing and biting his attackers fill my mind’s eye.

“Not invincible, but incredibly strong. You fought all those creatures by yourself.”

He makes a bitter grimace. “The reason why my makers held me in special regard. And why the mighty Slayer avoids direct confrontation.”

“Speaking of the Slayer,” I latch on the topic, trying to mask the shudder that goes through me as I realize how powerful he actually is. “Ivan Basarab. My best bet is Ronald Lord Barkley, especially since he and Vivien used to meet around the asylum. Vivien’s mother knows for a fact who it is – she told me, but an explosion muffled the sound. All we have to do is ask her to get confirmation. I would’ve told you before, when you came to my room, but I was too scared.”

He smiles a gentle smile, putting his hand over mine. “You’re not scared anymore, I hope. I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

I smile back. My cheeks prickle with emotion, which I identify as infatuation and a trace of fear. “It’s getting better.”

“Good, because I want us to become real, Saphira. I want . . . I want a true relationship.”

I drop my gaze like a maiden from the past century, embarrassed by my blush. I fight the girlish stupidity with all I have. “You’ve hurt me, Kieran, badly. You used me in terrible ways.”

The couch dips as he changes position and bends to me. My heart races, and I watch my own chest rising and falling as I try to control my breathing. He touches my chin with a soft finger, lifting my gaze to meet his again.

“Is that a no?”

“It is.”

His face draws. Desolation falls over his features, giving me an impulse to allow hope.

“At least for now,” I add quickly. “I need time.”

“And will time help?” He slurs.

I desperately need to change the subject. I take to washing the blood off his muscular thigh, the rhythm of my heart alert. He’s completely naked right in front of me. “What do you think about Ronald Lord Barkley being the true Ivan Basarab? Ivan Basarab sounds East European to me, and I remember he used to help couples adopt children from that area, so this speaks in favour of this theory too.”

“Hm.”

I look up at him. “You don’t think so?”

“If Vivien had anything going with Lord Barkley, she wouldn’t have needed to sneak at night into the lunatic asylum, would she? Basarab wanted access to the sewers so he could get to this manor underground. So it can’t be Barkley, he has access to the sewers anytime. But another person who’s manifested interest in the asylum and its sewers was your father, Gunnar Lothar, right after I bought the manor from him – he argued to Lord Barkley that the place needed expensive restorations anyway, and maybe it would be better to sell. He said that the old building had historical value, and the sewers could be turned into a tourist attraction. He wanted to explore the catacombs, allegedly to assess their potential, but Barkley hated the idea, and the relationship with Gunnar turned cold. So Basarab must’ve turned to threats to force Vivien Grant to help him, especially since she seemed to be on to him.”

I swallow hard. “You’re saying your suspect is my father?”

“He’s my best bet.”

I’m stunned, and I don’t even know what to feel. I look around, gathering my memories of my conversation with Mrs Grant. “Vivien’s mother said the mysterious man had everyone fooled except Vivien. That Vivien ‘discovered his true rot.’ These were her exact words. But my father, we know already how rotten he is.”

“I know, his so-called ‘friends’ know, and now you, but not the rest of Northville. To them, he’s the respectable family and business man.” He lies down on the couch with a grimace of pain, one leg curled in front of me, the other one on the floor.

I can’t help admiring the marble sinews of his naked body. His wounds are now disinfected and clean, but they still need tending to. The sight of them makes me cringe.

“Is there anywhere I can get bandages?” I ask.

“Not in this room, and you can’t go out. The serpents are calmer, but still. They’re wounded and furious.”

“Then we’ll have to improvise.”

I get up from the couch, walk to his desk and open drawers until one object builds team with my imagination – duct tape. I grab a few clean starched napkins from the liquor cabinet and go back to Kieran, who watches me with an amused expression.

“What’s so funny?” I inquire, drawing tape from the roll. It makes a pitchy sound that rips through the rustle of the fire.

“You’re inventive,” he says. “A life-saver in hardship.”

But the moment I bend to place a folded napkin on his shoulder wound, I notice it’s closing. Slowly like a snail, but visibly. I shriek and jump back. When I look into Kieran’s face, he’s smiling.

“There’s something about my kind of reptile,” he says. “Unless you cut off our head, we tend to regenerate.”

***

“Then why –”

“Why I let you take care of me?” His black gaze takes on a special glint in the firelight. “I wanted to feel your hands on me, of your own will. But my wounds didn’t need care. They’ll hurt for another few hours while they’re closing, but by morning I’ll be as good as new.”

“Kieran, you scared the life out of me.” I slap the napkins on the coffee table to mark my discontent at having been fooled. I stay soft-spoken though, not wanting to come across a drama queen jumping at the first opportunity to act hysterical.

“I scared the life out of you many times before, and for that please accept my apologies.” He props himself on his elbow with some difficulty, stretching out his other hand in an invitation.

“Come, lay here with me.”

The sound of his voice, dark and soft, seems to seep in through my pores. I square my shoulders, fighting the urge to obey.

“This needs to stop. You can’t go on numbing my will and playing with my head. If we’re to ever have a chance at a relationship, you’ll want me as myself.”

The haze of hypnotic obedience that made my lids heavy starts retreating, but Kieran’s intense black eyes still dazzle me without the input from his powers. The firelight sends a golden glow on his youthful features. He has the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. I busy myself with arranging objects on the coffee table in an attempt to hide my weakness and hold my ground.

“Very well then,” he says and sets his other elbow on the couch, now sustaining his weight on both of them and displaying his naked body. He’s most certainly aware of his beauty.

“Shame must be a foreign word to you,” I whisper.

“If the sight offends you, feel free to cover me. There’s a long coat hanging on the peg by the door.”

He may be regenerating, but he’s exhausted, and so am I. I walk to the peg and take the coat. It’s so heavy it disturbs my balance, exhaustion rendering my limbs weak. When I reach the couch Kieran’s eyes are closed. The last thing he expects is what I’m going to do, I’m sure.

I sit by his side. “Will you make room for me, please?”

His eyes snap open in surprise. He draws to the rest of the couch, moving onto his side so that half the couch becomes available and enough for me if I lie on my side as well. I lower myself slowly and nestle my head at his chest, pulling the coat over us both. My heart races as my cheek touches him, his skin like silk over a hard-muscled body.

“I thought you said –” he whispers.

“I asked you to stop influencing me, determining my actions,” I interrupt softly. The heat grows between us. “I asked you to let me exercise my free will. And this is what I do with my free will.”

He kisses my temple, his lips dry and warm. “You were always resilient to my influence.”

“Really? It didn’t feel that way to me.”

“How did it feel then?”

“You often made a zombie out of me.”

“And yet you always retained the ability of defying me.”

“It was a struggle, like moving my legs out of quicksand. But sometimes I chose to sink in, because that way it was easier to put up with the things you did with me.” My voice breaks on the last words.

Kieran pushes one arm under my body, the other one curling around me from above. He presses me to him in a tight embrace and kisses the top of my head.

“I’m so sorry, Saphira. I deserve all snakes’ bites and much more for what I did to you. I beg for your forgiveness, and I’ll do anything to get it.”

“It’s not easy, Kieran. It will take time.”

“As long as you need. I have centuries, and I place them at your feet.”

A sad smile pulls the corner of my mouth. It’s fascinating how exhaustion makes you feel accepting of anything. “A terrible waste, all those centuries scattered by my grave. Unlike you, I’m fully human, my time is limited.”

The fire rustles in the silence as Kieran’s first tear drips on my temple.

***

Enjoyed this? Let me know your thoughts in a comment, and stay tuned for Part III on Monday!

Previously

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 1.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 3.

This is a compilation of The Marquis’ and Saphira’s moments together from the entire story.

Read Part I of the ENTIRE story („Saphira“) here, and Part 2 of the ENTIRE story (“The Marquis”) here. Have fun!

The Marquis and Saphira – Their story – Part 1

The most important scenes in the book by now, Part I – There’s a goody in the end : )

***

“Excuse me,” I say and push back my chair. I leave the table and make my way through the crowd towards the exit, then take up such a pace down the stairs that I stumble over my own dress folds.

I manage to reach the bottom of the flight on my feet and lean on a marble pillar, hand on my belly and struggling for deep breaths. The freaking corset makes it hard.

The first toilet is full of powdering noses, so I seek a more secluded cloakroom to cool down. This part of the venue is still undergoing some renovation, which keeps precious personalities at bay. Given that the ball’s full of them, this wing is empty.

I stroll among a few scaffolds for interior and take the curve around the corner. I stop in my tracks and my breathing catches, yet this time it’s not the corset.

An elegant back in a tailcoat, stripping off a pair of black gloves. He moves like a feral licking its bloody snout, which must be why the white-faced dead man in a suit sitting on the floor facing him, back against the wall, actually fits the picture for a second. I realize I’m witnessing a murder and I want to scream, but the killer turns, and my heart stops.

His face is marble-white with astonishing features and the blackest eyes I’ve ever seen, his hair dark, rich and glossy. He’s probably no older than twenty, barely more than a dazzling boy who gives women wet dreams. But the calmness he displays, the composure, it leaves no doubt – it was him.

I turn on my heels and run back towards the populated hallway, my shoes clattering on the marble floor, dress folds gathered in my hands. I barge into the packed toilet, breathless and unable to utter one intelligible word. The powdering noses now staring and batting fake lashes don’t look like much help.

I crack the door and peek outside. People stroll up and down the luxurious hallway, stiff and wearing the fake grins specific for these business balls. He’s nowhere in sight. I slap a bit of water on my cheeks, which brings my shaking limbs back in moving condition, and hurry up to the ball room, intent on blurting out a report to my father.

But only a few steps into the dancing and tumbler-clinking crowd the young killer blocks my route, arranging his tie and fixing me with those dangerous dark eyes. I freeze in place. Before I realize what’s happening he reaches around my waist and leads me into a slow dance. He moves so naturally, no one would suspect that something’s wrong with this picture. I move along, my mind blocked and relying only on my sixth sense – I dread what would come out of struggling away from such a man.

“Are you going to tell on me?” His voice is a pleasant baritone. Soft, warm, it could fool anyone. It could’ve fooled me.

“You just killed a man.” I begin to shake.

“I had the best reason there is for that.”

“There are no good reasons for murder. You’re a psycho.”

“You’re good with labels. Stamp people a lot?” He exudes a bittersweet scent that stirs me inside.

“No more than they stamp me.”

I have a label for you too, then.” He sounds menacing. I can see “dead woman” racing my way. But he takes distance, keeping my hand in a smooth palm. His eyes hypnotize me into calmness as he takes it to his beautiful young lips. “Persephone.”

“Why Persephone?” I whisper with my last drop of wit. He seems to hypnotize me in the most real sense of the word.

“Because I might just take you with me back to the Underworld.”

***

Dressed all-business in his best suit, Father has a content expression, a bit devious maybe. Big stomach ahead of him – liver issues, which he ignores again with a glass of scotch and ice cubes – he stands leaning with a hand on his desk. There’s something about him that resembles a mafia boss, but the years when he was truly dangerous are gone, he’s just a poser now. He’s facing someone sitting in the revolving leather armchair in front of him. I can only see the back of it.

“Ah, Saphira,” he says with a sly grin, “please, do come in.”

He hurries to my side. He must be tense, his salt-and-pepper hair seems on volts.

“Let me introduce you to the newest member of our community, the Marquis of Vandenesse.”

The chair turns while Father talks, and the dark-eyed killer appears before me. The blood freezes in my veins. Those eyes settle on mine as flashes of the dead face at his feet come at me again and again. I’m certain I just went snow-white.

He stands and approaches, tall and elegant in his black suit. He’s as close to me as he was on that dance floor a week ago, before I managed to break the trance he’d put my senses in, and make a fool of myself claiming out loud to have witnessed a murder no one found a trace of. As for him, he’d dissolved in thin air. Ever since I kept myself locked in, fearing a moment such as this.

“The Marquis,” Father pushes the conversation since it doesn’t pick up by itself, “has bought the manor with the fields. The perfect home for the perfect gentleman.”

The manor. That means a healthy realtor commission for my father, which blows away all the family troubles. Just like that, as if they’ve never been there. Father must be feeling dangerously grateful.

“We’ll sure be doing more business together,” the killer says in that deceitful voice of his, his eyes not leaving mine. Chills course down my spine.

“However I can be of service, Marquis,” Father replies, and pauses to be offered the Marquis’ first name. The Marquis doesn’t react as expected, but keeps looking hard at me, while my eyes wander helpless all over his young face. He’s so handsome, it’s compelling.

“Oh, you can, my dear Mr. Lothar,” he says. “Will you allow me to engage the assistance of your charming daughter?”

“In what way?”

This time the Marquis addresses me directly. “I hear you paint, Saphira.”

“You do?”

“Your mother mentioned you were up with brush and canvas before she went out to get you. The old manor could use some new fittings and decoration, so I would like to see what you have.”

“Oh, certainly,” Father cuts in. “We can show you an entire collection.”

“It’s not much worth,” I block.

“Word has it you sold two of your works for nice amounts last year,” the Marquis says.

“How did you hear that?”

“Quality tends to become famous.”

“Yes, well, quality hasn’t found its way out of this house since.”

He lifts his chin, and his eyes flash with cunning. “I’d like to get an impression of my own.”

I go weak at the knees as Father encourages the killer and invites him out of the study and up the stairs, all the while speaking highly of what he called until now a “craft for spoiled brats.”

The door to the attic squeaks open, revealing my work in progress and the crowd of finished ones, some rolled up, some leaning against the walls, the tripod and on each other. I thank God with all I have that I haven’t started to paint him, the dark-eyed killer. That would’ve been terribly embarassing right now, but if I survive this visit I know I won’t be able to resist putting what I feel in a portrait. Something very strange is bustling inside of me.

The Marquis walks right to my oldest painting that hangs on the wall. The Dark Castle. If I had some presence of mind until now, when Mum gets Father out of the room invoking the Marquis’ assistant’s asking for the host to see to the transaction papers, fear grips me.

I’m alone with the killer.

“This painting mirrors your soul.” His voice fills the wooden room, liquid and rich.

I want to say something witty, but fear’s got my lips bloodless and shivering. With small steps I advance to my working place and palm a nail. The Marquis still stands with his back at me, black hair glossy, hands in his trouser pockets.

“I can feel your special golden eyes on me,” he says calmly. “And I know what you have in your hand.”

I begin to shake.

“In my business,” he continues, “if I didn’t know when someone holds a weapon behind my back, I’d be long dead. Or something similar to dead.”

He turns, and I’m certain I’m looking at a demon, as handsome as sin. He approaches, and I can’t detect the slightest trace of fear in his moves or in his face. I don’t unsettle him at all. Again he stands too close, his scent bittersweet, anaesthetizing my senses. His stare keeps steady on me, and I understand that he’s making himself available for questions. I take the chance.

“Why did you kill that man at the ball, Marquis?”

“Right to the heart of the matter. Don’t I deserve some small talk first?”

“Oh, you don’t want to hear what I believe that you deserve.”

He gives me an indulgent smile. “Are you so direct on all your suitors?”

My heart jumps. “Suitors?”

“What did you expect, Saphira?” His voice lowers, threatening, and his stare deepens. “You have a secret of mine, so I can’t have you walking around free. It’s either this or the underworld.”

“What on earth are you trying to tell me?” My heart drums, I’m breathless.

“That there’s more special about you than just the color of your eyes. You managed to break free from my grip on your senses when we first met. That’s a rare gift, you see. So knowing what you know, I need you completely in my power. And I’ll have you completely in my power, no matter how many houses I have to buy from your father.”

“I’ll run away,” I whisper.

He laughs. It’s a quiet, but confident sound. “Tell me, Saphira. Do I strike you as someone who’s easily eluded?”

“There must be exceptions. There are always exceptions,” I attempt to defy to the very end.

His presence grows darker, crushing and chilling, not of this world. “None of them alive to tell the tale.”

***

The Marquis stands on the grand stairs, an elegant young man of a stunning beauty. The contours of his face, pale and flawless, contrast with his eerie dark eyes, and make something stir in my chest. I punch the feeling away, but it keeps returning. He is our host, so at least I’m relieved he’s not the new master of Jeanie’s heart. It must be one of the two men flanking him. Still, Jeanie is the exception rather than the rule. The female sighs around at the sight of him – including Lauren’s – leave no doubt the young Marquis fills the dreams of many.

***

A buzz starts in my head, and I no longer listen to the cause of death. I know it’s a fake. The man died at the hand of the Marquis, I saw it. I saw his dead eyes fixed on his murderer.

“Signed the cession on the day he died, word has it,” another man says. Soon the discussion heats up, and I stand with a dizzy head, seeking my way to cooler air. The cologne and body warmth of the crowd smothers me.

Jeanie asks if I’m okay and wants to join, but I refuse. On my way to the door the baldhead piranha who’s been terrorizing me with phone calls walks my way with a filthy grin on. I don’t stand a chance to avoid him, but then I see it. I see what’s behind him. I want to scream, but I fail.

***

The young Marquis walks close behind the piranha Vladimir Pukov and stops him with a hand on the piranha’s shoulder. Something flashes in his other hand –metal. I only see it for a second or two, but it’s enough to make things clear – he can kill the piranha in cold blood, same as he did the man at the Royale.

“I have to step in,” he says. “You’re heading too confidently towards my date.”

At that word both the piranha and I look puzzled at each other, then at the Marquis.

“My apologies,” the piranha says, his shoulders slumping, his baldhead glistening with sweat under the chandelier. He has no idea that he’s facing a murderer, but he’s intimidated nonetheless. It’s the first time I see the bastard humbled, and it feels good. “I didn’t realize you and Miss Lothar –”

“Apologies accepted,” the Marquis replies before the piranha finishes, then offers me his arm. I’m afraid of the consequences of a refusal to take it, so I do without a thought.

He sweeps me with elegance away from the staring piranha. Surprised faces and Venetian masks draw from our path as we glide among them, and I become ashamed of my appearance. Most women look glittery and flamboyant but decent, their dresses long, so I feel more like an escort than a lady in my short golden cocktail dress, my hair unrestrained down my back. It’s too much, maybe even ostentatious. Inside I’m shooting reproof at my mom, who I now notice on the side, a happy smile on her face. Dad must be ecstatic at the sight of the Marquis and me together too.

The Marquis stops here and there and introduces me to people I know already. A particular piece of news is as shocking to them as it is to me – I’m the Marquis’ girlfriend. Some of them would’ve considered their own daughters, sisters or themselves a far better pick, especially since they’re leading rich sharks in London and Paris. They have some difficulty swallowing the info that a bankrupt artist from the province has won the freaking lottery with the Marquis’ interest.

I have even more difficulty. I stare up at the Marquis’ face as he speaks, and find myself compelled by those dark, murky eyes. The way his hair frames his head, rich and glossy, it enhances the youthfulness of his features and the menacing feel of his gaze. I’m all too aware that he was ready to kill a man just minutes before. The scene of him removing his gloves after taking that man’s life at the Royale comes back like a stinging warning, and fear makes my muscles clench.

He leads the way amidst the crowd and then out of the banquet hall without anybody noticing. A line of people who look like guests but must actually be the Marquis’ staff close behind us like a human wall as we leave through a narrow – and secret – exit. My heart pounds in my throat as he takes me up dark stairs to the tower, an architectural ghost.

“Why are we going there?” I manage, breathless with anxiety.

“Don’t be afraid,” his voice resounds close. It makes me feel drunk, and I know he’s got a grip on my senses again. The fear subsides, and my hand relaxes as he takes it in his. The touch of his skin electrifies me.

I’m little more than a zombie with a crush by the time we reach the room at the top, the door creaking open like an old cell grate. The place looks a dungeon, the walls black and foreboding. The Marquis leads me slowly to a niche to the side, lights a candle, and holds it up to illuminate what I expect to be a wall. But when the painting I made of him reveals itself in the candlelight my senses shudder out of the trance, and I reawaken to reality.

I’m standing in the manor’s oldest tower with a murderer, looking at my best-kept secret. The Marquis seems to read my mind.

“You took mine, I took yours.”

“How did you even know about it?” I whisper, trying to hide my fear. I’ve painted it in repeated fits of nightly obsessions after the day he visited at my parents’ house, he shouldn’t even know of its existence.

“Your father. I suppose he wanted to make it clear to me that the chances stood high for the two of us.”

I’m embarrassed and enraged. “He had no right.”

“He had a reason.”

“He just wants to see me married to someone wealthy,” I spit. “I understand you’re as filthy rich as they come, so he’s doing his best to bring us together. That’s as noble as his reasons get.”

I can feel the warmth of him close behind me, and my knees threaten to melt. I struggle to keep control. My jaw tightens as my thoughts run in errant circles. The Marquis bends his head so that his lips touch my ear, sending a thrill all through my skin.

“You think it’s a good idea to put your father in that light? I understand tonight you learned what I do with greedy bastards.”

My head snaps to the side, and I stare at him baffled. A smile draws his young lips, and I feel an urge to kiss him. I bite the inside of my cheek until I taste blood.

“Yes,” he says, “I know what was discussed at your table.”

“How?”

“In my business I have to keep spies everywhere.”

“You mentioned your business before. What is it exactly?”

“Direct again.” He looks up at the painting and raises the candle. “Let’s talk some art first.”

I decide on direct once more. “You want to know why I painted you?”

“Oh, I know why you painted me. It’s how you did that I find intriguing.”

I look up at the portrait too. It shows him in his full beauty. I’ve been waking up at night with the urge of plunging into the oily colors, forgetting the brush and working on it with my fingers, wishing to feel him, to become one with him so I can understand him. I felt possessed, pushed into it by some evil force, moving like a nut case until I fell exhausted and smeared with pasty color all over, my eyes puffy and heavy.

“How did it get here?” I whisper.

“Your father helped. After you left for the banquet tonight, your maid opened the door to my people, who packed it and brought it here.”

“They were fast.”

“They always are.”

“What’s your name, Marquis?”

That smile again. “I can’t tell you that.”

“Why not?”

He looks me in the face, and I’m lost in the depths of his eyes, glittering dangerous in the candlelight. “Because it would give you power over me.”

“Are you a demon, then?”

“Yes.”

“You’re mocking.”

“You’re shaking.”

I haven’t realized that he walked to me while I retreated, and now I bump into the wall opposite from his portrait. I’m hot and start sweating, yet I can’t control my shivering.

“Why do you do this?” I whisper. “Why do you tell people I’m your girlfriend?”

“I’m making this serious. Otherwise you’d think I’m playing with you.”

“I don’t want us to be serious.” The words hurt as they leave my mouth, because in truth I desperately want him to kiss me.

“What do you want?”

“I want you to leave here and never come back,” I lie blatantly.

“I can’t do that, Saphira. Not after everything you saw.”

“I saw the end of a murder, yes. But not exactly what happened. I’ll keep my mouth shut, I assure you.”

“It’s not only what you saw at the Royale.” He’s now too close, and I feel high again. “It’s what you see in me. What you put in that portrait. And what you might reveal in other works too.”

“That is the portrait of a young man, nothing more.”

“That portrait is a confession. You don’t realize this, but it talks too much. You won’t be able to hold back, you’ll reveal more in time.”

I want to keep the line of replies open, but the Marquis’ next move stuns me. His arm winds around me and presses me to him, his other hand stroking its way up the halter under my dress. My heart jumps and my breath catches as his lips, warm and soft, take over mine. My head spins, and I can’t help touching him, letting my hands knot in his hair. He retreats before my passion breaks out of control, a satisfied smile on his face. I know immediately that he’s aware of his power over me, that he’s aware I’d go all the way.

“Not yet, Saphira. Not yet.”

He withdraws in the dark, leaving me shaking with desire. I’m under his spell, and I barely realize where I am until the door creaks sharply, bursting open. My head turns in its direction, and I see the last person I expect to see.

***

On the rare occasions the Marquis looks at Jeremy he seems to scan the man inside out. His youthful features are relaxed as he glides in the crowd, talking to people, as if Jeremy’s presence doesn’t worry him in the least. Stone Mask and Joyous flank him the entire time, and a group’s constantly shifting to back them up, which makes it clear they’re undercover security. I can’t help stealing glances at him, compelled by his unusual beauty and the memory of his kiss.

I realize I’m always around him, beginning to act like a stalker. Refusing to sink any lower, I stomp to the wardrobe, let the valet help me into my coat and hurry down the manor stairs. I increase pace with every step, but before I get to slide on my butt on the last one a chauffeur catches me and elegantly motions to a car. He tells me the Marquis insists that I’m safe and comfortable. As the car departs I look back at the majestic manor, wondering if he’s watching me leave.

For days I keep myself locked in the attic, painting him in a frenzy, canvas after canvas. I sink my hands in the watercolor and reproduce his portrait with my fingers. My brain spins with questions – should I tell Jeremy what I saw? Should I risk it? Should I paint the scene, let it speak for itself? The answer subdues my morals every time, reminding me my own father could have the same fate as the man at the Royale if I betray the Marquis’ secret. So I ignore Jeremy’s calls, fearing his questions. It’s not the same when the piranha Vladimir Pukov resumes attack.

***

That dark, liquid voice gives me the goose bumps. I look in the direction it came from and see the Marquis walking to our table from behind the fake wall that separates it from the rest of the restaurant. I freeze as he stops by our side, an elegant feral in a dark suit, his eyes intense down on Pukov.

Stone Mask and Joyous flank him on each side now too, only that Stone Mask’s steely eyes shoot daggers, and Joyous’ smile seems deranged like a killer psycho’s. Just a shade different from his smile at the banquet, but it gives him a whole new aura, and I think of poor Jeanie.

Beads of sweat appear on the piranha’s baldhead again, and his fleshy frame cringes in his suit.

“Marquis of Vandenesse.” He attempts to stand, but Stone Mask pushes him back down into his chair. Pukov’s eyes widen as he realizes the conflict is no longer veiled.

“You didn’t contact her in days,” Pukov explains himself, sounding anxious. “I assumed it was just that night at the banquet.” The last words fade as his look at the Marquis gains more rounded meaning – he assumed the Marquis did me that night, and then ditched me, therefore leaving the path open for Pukov to do the same. But that’s not what the Marquis picks up on.

“And how do you know that I haven’t contacted her? Did you stalk her?”

“You must’ve done the same, since you’re here.” Pukov says. Then something in the Marquis’ eyes makes more sweat break out through his skin, his face now luscious with it. “I mean you’re in your every right to, since the two of you are more serious than I thought, obviously. Saphira could’ve told me, but she chose not to.”

The Marquis flashes a youthful smile at him. “Are you blaming the lady now?”

“She did give course to my invitation.”

“She broke under your insistences.”

“I hardly think that’s fair. She didn’t have to answer my calls.”

“You cornered her from every direction. You’ve been burning her phone for weeks, had her father lobby for you, even offered him money.”

Pukov would like to grin, but he bites his inner cheek. “Didn’t you?”

“Not to get her in my bed, but to secure her as my wife.”

Both Pukov’s and my jaw drop.

“This is direct,” Pukov says. “I apologize, I didn’t realize the two of you were this far.” It’s obvious he retires from the exchange because he’s afraid of the Marquis, not because he’s any less convinced that I’m a bitch who lifted her tail, merely playing hard to get. But the Marquis isn’t willing to let him off the hook.

“Your pattern of thinking, Mr. Pukov, it’s brought ruin to innocent destinies before. It got a particular young woman raped and killed. Do you feel she provoked you the way Saphira did?”

His words fire shock in my head.

Stone Mask and Joyous tighten their presence on each side of Pukov, while the Marquis bends down to loom over him, a hand on the rest of his chair, the other one a fist on the table. It looks strong and angry despite the Marquis’ low voice.

“You pursued her affections as aggressively as you do Saphira’s. She wasn’t interested, but you wouldn’t take no for an answer. You persuaded yourself she was just playing difficult, and forced yourself on her in an alleyway. She fell limp while you had your way with her, which drove you mad. You beat her up so badly, that by the time anybody could identify her again she was dead in a dumpster, after having been roughly used by a number of your friends – for money, for days.”

My heart beats in a rage as I process what the Marquis is saying. The piranha’s eyes are wide with fear, fixed on the Marquis’ menacing face.

“Say her name, Vladimir. I’m sure you remember it. You don’t forget an experience like that easily,” the Marquis slurs darkly.

The piranha tries but fails, and the Marquis doesn’t give him another chance. What happens next electrifies me to the marrow.

I strain to understand what I’m seeing as something looking blade-sharp begins slithering out of the Marquis’ mouth. I jump up as I realize a serpent tongue undulates slowly towards the piranha, but someone’s behind me and covers my scream with their hand. I have no choice but watch how the young man with the angelic face and demon-like eyes forces the thing that moves out of his mouth down the piranha’s throat. A bubble seems to form in Pukov’s belly then further up in his chest. I can see it moving under his shirt, and I feel a violent need to throw up. The tongue twists and turns inside the piranha and then yanks out in a splutter of blood, coiled tightly around what I realize is the man’s stomach. I press my eyes shut, releasing the fear and shock into the hand that presses hard on my mouth.

When I open them I see the Marquis through my tears, I see the skin on his hands changing texture into something reptilian. The tablecloth catches fire like paper at the edges under his touch, but Joyous is quick to spill the piranha’s glass of water on it. The Marquis pulls a pair of special gloves over his hands, then starts wiping the blood off the piranha’s face with white towels that Stone Mask provides. Joyous moves just as fast and skilled while he cleans the scene, suddenly assisted by people pouring in from around the fake wall. I recognize some of them from the banquet.

I’m being led out through the back, into a limo. I’m shivering and I’m sure I’ll pass out, but then the Marquis takes the place opposite from me, looking elegant and youthful as if nothing happened, removing his gloves the way I saw him at the Royale.

“You weren’t mocking,” I breathe with my last drop of self-awareness. “You’re indeed a demon.”

“Demons are the creation of a god, Saphira. I’m the creation of a man.”

***

He walks directly to me, elegant and dangerous like a panther, his dark eyes hypnotic on that youthful ivory face. He extends his hand – gloved and black – and I’m compelled to offer mine. He leans in and takes it to his lips, his eyes fixed on my face, threatening as hell from under his brows.

Soon his arm is around me, keeping me close to his body that feels hard and delicious under his clothes. He’s using that inexplicable power he has over me to influence my feelings, and I don’t stand a chance to resist him. He leads me around to greet people, who congratulate and stare. I’m sure I look like a zombie. I can’t even speak, as if he put a spell on me that seals my lips to anyone but him. I feel like a living mind in a corpse, I want to scream but I’m unable to.

Lauren bats her lashes at the Marquis when we come to her circle, smiling seductively. He gives her a reserved smile back, no more. If I were myself, I’d probably welcome her winning him over, but I’m not myself.

After a while the Marquis and I have a moment alone with a glass of red wine, and his hold on me lessens. I take the chance to win some of his trust, since it seems like my only option.

“You were right,” I mutter with some difficulty.

He takes the glass to his lips, looking purposefully away, as if to allow me to regain some self-control. “About what?”

“You did have the best of reasons to take Pukov’s life.”

“I’m glad we begin to think alike.”

“Who was that woman, Marquis?” I dare. “The one Pukov killed?”

“He beat and raped her, then had others do the same,” he cuts. “But he wasn’t the one to kill her.”

My throat knots. It dawns on me. “The man at the Royale, he was one of them?”

“Your wit is quick.”

“My God. They’re all from Northville.”

“And they’re all here now.”

I can’t believe my ears. Instinctively I look around, my gaze sweeping over every male face starting with my father – an obsolete, dusty Godfather-type of businessman – and ending with Jeremy, who stands a protective pillar by his sister Jeanie and Virgin Vivien, frowning at his suspect – the Marquis. William “Billy” Dean – the mouse-faced notary public who’s had a crush on Lauren forever – would never fit the profile after my standards. Maybe Ronald Lord Barkley, the livid head of the lunatic asylum; he looks deranged enough.

But when the Marquis glides behind me, one arm coiling around my stomach and the other pointing discretely but clearly in the direction of the killer, my blood turns to ice grain, scraping my veins.

“It was him.”

The words make the sky drop and squash my heart. I stare frozen, unable to feel.

“That’s why you insisted to marry me. It wasn’t just to keep me quiet about the murder at the Royale,” I whisper.

“Quick wit despite the shock. I like you more and more, Saphira.”

The haze begins to lift, and the reality presents its grotesque face – my father killed that woman. He raped and killed her, taking some sick pleasure in it. Somehow my intuition confirms, even if I would have never suspected it of my own accord.

“What do you intend to do?” I manage.

“Initially I planned a slaughter,” he hisses. I become aware of his men lining the walls, Joyous and Stone Mask guarding the exit, ready to seal it at their boss’ signal that the bloodbath may begin. I doubt they’d spare the collaterals. “But when you surprised me at the Royale, I had a much better idea.”

My skin crawls. “Who was the woman, Marquis? Who was she to you?” I force myself to look aside to his face over my shoulder. His eyes are black and deadly on my father.

“She was the woman I loved. I was very young back then, and nothing like I am now. I tried to protect her, but Pukov’s men battered me to a pulp. Pukov himself never even took notice of me.”

“But how is it possible that his men could defeat you? I mean, you’re –,” I stop.

“A monster,” the Marquis finishes for me. He smiles that wicked smile of his. “I told you, I was nothing like I am now. I was an orphan in love with an aristocrat, a hopeless but requited love. A secret love. But since I didn’t have anyone in the world but her, Pukov’s men did with me what they did with every such opportunity – they sold me to my maker.”

Chill after chill crawl under my skin. “Will you do with me what they did with her?”

Mystery replaces the threat in the Marquis’ eyes, and I’m somewhat calmer. But his good will is a mirage.

“You will assist me in my revenge, Saphira. And I’ll make my revenge epic.” With these words he extends his gloved hand again, and his power compels me to take it. He says the good-byes for both of us, and invokes a romantic chariot ride as reason for our leaving the party. The bastards don’t have a clue how very lucky they are. On the inside I’m boiling. I’m paying for the sins of sadistic perverts.

They gather at the windows and in the doorstep to watch the Marquis help me into the chariot under falling snow-flakes, believing me the fairy-tale princess, when in truth I’m the sacrificial lamb. The Marquis opens his coat like a demon his black wings to look like he’s warming me, but I can’t feel the cold anyway. My heart drums in anxiety with the tramping of horse hooves as I watch the black tower emerge from the white winter night. The Marquis’ lips touch my ear, his breath warm.

“I told you I’d be taking you with me to the underworld, Persephone.”

***

My heart pounds in fear as the Marquis leads me up the spiral stairs to the tower. This part of the manor is still in restoration, it’s dark and eerie, insects crawling in cracks and corners. Cobweb sticks to my face, and I half wish he’d use those hypnotizing powers of his on me like he did the last time. The expression on his face is wicked in the light and scorching heat of the torch, and I think he enjoys my distress.

The door to the tower creaks open, but the chamber presents some minimal amenities this time. The sight is a shade gothic, making a chill run down my spine – a dark king size bed with a black canopy and golden-rimmed pillows, a stone fireplace, a vintage vanity table and, of, course, my portrait of him. He places the torch in an iron support, and I stop in place.

“This will be your bedroom,” he says, his voice pleasant and rich. His spell clouds me, but I’m determined to resist. My fists clench by my side.

“Why an unfinished part of the manor? You have a fetish for ‘grim’?” My face burns, and I can’t blame the torch anymore.

“Oh, this will be your chamber alone. I won’t be sharing it.”

I should be relieved, and yet I’m not. “So you don’t intend to consummate the marriage?”

He gives a low laugh as he approaches, tall and warm behind me. His chin lowers to my shoulder, his fine fingers brushing my hair away, freeing the curve of my neck. A thrill goes through me at the touch of his breath on my skin.

“I like the symbol of the tower,” he murmurs, his undertones dangerous. “It’s where Henry the eighth put his allegedly adulterous wife, Anne Boleyn, before he beheaded her.”

“Is that what you intend to do? Behead me?” I struggle to keep my voice from shaking.

“You’re bold, Saphira. I like that. But I can smell your fear. The human body releases certain hormones at fear, and I’m equipped to pick up on them.”

I remember the kind of monster he is, and I can’t restrain a shudder.

“What are you going to do with me, Marquis?”

“I’ll have you do things for me, Saphira. I’ll command, and you’ll comply.”

I snort, bitter and defying. “I already saw what you can do, and the element of surprise is gone. I will not obey your orders. I’d rather die like Pukov.”

“Oh, I know you’d rather die, Saphira. You’re noble and just, true and stern, and this isn’t personal. But you happen to be the daughter of a highly despicable maggot, so you’re a collateral.”

“And you just accept collaterals.”

“I accept their fair sacrifice.”

“I will not obey you,” I repeat, shoulders square, obstinate.

“Not to save your life, and not even to save your father’s under the circumstances, yes. I imagined you’d feel that way. Which is why I said I’d make my revenge epic.”

His lips touch the curve of my neck, soft like velvet, and my skin electrifies. I stiffen and decide not to give him satisfaction, but it’s a challenge. His hand pushes my hair further to the side and drapes it over my other shoulder, while his lips trail to the nape of my neck. I try to turn and stop him, but his hands clench on my upper arms, keeping me in place, while a deep calm clouds my head like an opiate. I know he’s using his powers over me, and I wish I could defy him, but I’m falling deeper under his spell.

His fingers start unlacing the back of my dress, slowly, his kisses light on my neck, making pleasure ripple on my skin. My laces now unfastened, he brushes the dress off my arms, and the silk pools at my feet, leaving me half naked. I can feel his hips against my naked backside – the silk wouldn’t have looked good with anything but a thong.

He undoes my bra, and before I know it, his hands cup my breasts. They’re modest but firm, enough to fill his velvet palms that make my nipples harden. He loses a low moan of satisfaction and turns me around.

I’m now facing him, a handsome monster with fine ivory face and pitch black eyes that drill into mine, taking possession of my mind. He’s still fully dressed in his dark suit while I’m standing vulnerable before him in my thong and halter stockings, my hair undone and my high heels still on. He drinks in the sight of me with avaricious eyes and pushes me to the wall, his lust unleashed. My back slaps against the cold wall while the Marquis pushes against me, his body rock-hard under his shirt. He grabs me beneath my thigh, invading me with a possessive kiss.

I’m hot and burning as his other hand works between us on his fly, and only a moment later I feel his manhood like smooth stone between my legs. His push against my body makes me pull up one knee while he kneads my back thigh with a strong hand and enters me. I arch my back as I receive him, burning with lust and knotting my hands in the rich gloss of his hair. I’m hot and pasty down there, and yet it hurts as he grinds deeper into me, groaning with pleasure and growing brutal. He’s big and relentless, his thrusts making the shoe fall of my foot and the other tip lift from the ground.

He takes me like a master his slave, and yet I build-up like never before, coming hard around him and unable to restrain cries of ecstasy, pulling his hair. It’s not enough to even move him, and he takes in my manifestation with rapacious black eyes. I can feel him throb inside me as he finds his release, his groans low but rich. I fall apart in his arms, heaving and looking down over his arm, ashamed of myself.

We spend moments like that, and his spell on me begins to lessen. Still, the flutter of my heart and the clench of desire inside me don’t pull back, and I’m forced to admit it’s not his mysterious powers that have me charmed. He makes me stand again, his hands on my shoulders keeping me to the wall as he searches my eyes. I blink often, unable to look him in the eye, but then he lets me fall down to my knees before him.

Puzzled, I look up. The anger in his eyes strikes me. It’s the anger of someone who’s lost control. He buttons up his fly looking down on me, and walks like a feral to the fireplace. From the tripod candelabrum on the mantelpiece where the top candle should’ve been he removes a small camera. I’m stunned, and I feel dirty. I crouch in a corner, covering my breasts with my hands, glaring at him with powerless reproof.

“You won’t obey my orders to stay alive,” he says, his gaze dark and dangerous. “But you will comply to keep this from reaching everyone you know.”

“That’s beneath you, Marquis.”

“It’s the only way to manipulate an ice queen,” he sneers. “As I’ve said, your father was the man who killed the woman I loved. But several harmed her before him. You will be my instrument to wreck them all, one by one.”

***

Enjoyed this? Let me know your thoughts in a comment, and stay tuned for Part II on Sunday!

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2

Read the entire Part 1 of this story here, and Part 2 (“The Marquis”) here. Have fun!

Pic source.

 

 

Revelations – Ep. 33 of The Marquis

“I should’ve stayed with her,” I keep saying. I’m aware of the soothing hand on my forehead, and soon also of the warmth of a bed and thick duvets that slowly brings my body back to life, but other than that I’m stuck on Lauren’s story inside my head. It’s a while until I can lift my eyelids, and even longer until I come back to myself completely.

“I need to talk to her,” I say to whomever is there to listen. “She has to forgive me.” I try to get up, but a stabbing pain in my ribs knocks me back down. I groan, but luckily someone rushes to my side and does something to take the pain away – I don’t know what.

“Don’t strain yourself.” It’s Yvette’s smoker-deep voice. “You’ve been seriously abused, and you’re still weak.”

Little by little I get used to the waking state again, and Yvette rustles the curtains aside to let light in. I’m still at the asylum – I recognize the bleak gardens outside, even though I can’t see very well – but in a much cozier room. I manage to sit up on the bed eventually, grimacing at the discomfort, and tangling in all the cables that are clipped to my fingertips. Wow, I must be doing shitty.

“How did you manage to get me here?” My vocal cords sound so rusty I must’ve been out for days.

“You’re pretty lucid, I see,” Yvette says with a smile as she heads back to the bed. She checks the IV lines and the machines around me like a dexterous nurse, only that she’s wearing black instead of white. A Morticia-Adams-dress that’s too tight on her plump shape. I can’t help but marvel at how generous her bust is, and at the fact that she doesn’t try to hide it like most women her age. The cleavage, red lipstick and wrinkle-free full-moon face make me wonder whether she grooms this appearance for some much younger lover. Can’t believe where my mind strays . . .

“How much do you remember?” She inquires, hands and eyes up on the machines.

“Everything. I remember that Lauren almost got me killed, and that she ordered I be treated so badly that I eventually die. Which is why I’m surprised to wake up being tended to.”

I catch a glimpse of myself in the screen of a machine, and I cringe. I’m compelled to return my gaze to the image – one eye is swollen and reddish-purple, same as my upper lip that’s crisscrossed by cuts.

Yvette leans down to me with a motherly smile, and caresses my forehead. The scent of aromatic cigarettes is welcome and homely – I must be really damaged to find it pleasant; I always hated the smell of cigarettes.

“You were very lucky, Saphira. It may look bad now, but it’ll all go away. There will be no scars or permanent damage. There’s a God up there who loves you.”

“Yes, I believe so,” I whisper, still terrified by my own image. I try not to look at it again, and pray that Kieran doesn’t get to see me like this. “How did you manage to save my arse?”

“Let’s say I restored the balance of power. Lauren Morris has been sleeping with Lord Barkley for years – this was Barkley’s secret, and how certain people in this town kept him doing what they said. Now, since Miss Morris opened her big slutty mouth in front of me, he must do what I say. I blackmailed him.”

“She’s been sleeping with Ronald Lord Barkley . . .” My stomach knots. I can’t help imagining Pretty Lauren’s skinny model legs in high heels wrapped around Barkley’s pruned hips. Gunnar’s abuse of her when she was a child drilled into her mind severely deep, making her sink in traumatic experiences until she became as dangerous as her abusers.

“This is all my fault . . .” I shake my head, and get a terrible ache.

“No, Saphira.” Yvette cups my face and makes me look into her eyes. “We are all responsible for our own actions, and so is Lauren for hers.”

“That’s not true,” I manage among tears. “It’s a simplistic way of putting things in order to get the burden off the shoulders where it belongs. You can’t tell a raped child that they’re responsible for what they become.”

Yvette searches my eyes. “As I said, you’re pretty darn lucid.”

“Thank God. Don’t try cheap lines on me again, because they don’t soothe me – they enrage me.” I sound angrier than good Yvette deserves. Poor woman is just trying to help, but I can’t bring myself to apologize.

“Okay, then look this truth in the face,” she retorts. “What happened to Lauren Morris was not your fault. You were only a child yourself. Even if you had known what Gunnar was capable of, you couldn’t have confronted or challenged him.”

“No, but I could’ve hindered him. I would’ve never left her side, I would’ve . . .”

“Not knowing what he was capable of kept you alive and unscathed, Saphira! That bastard cared about his image more than anything – his immaculate image of a family man – and had you compromised that, he would’ve gotten rid of you. He may have done with you what he did with Catherine Lancaster!”

Chills go through me and shake me to the bones. The man I’d known as my father . . . I can’t think it to the end. It’s unbearable.

“And raping his neighbors’ daughter didn’t threaten his image, you think?” I grumble, trying to move yet further away from that feeling.

“Lauren Morris’ dad used to work for yours. He kissed Gunnar’s ass big time. So Gunnar sent him and his wife on business trips almost constantly, if you remember, and kept the girl at your house.”

I nod slowly in recollection. That’s how Lauren and I became best friends in the first place. Loose ends come together, and things start to make sense. I look slowly up at Yvette and narrow my eyes – well, my one good eye.

She frowns down at a syringe that she then dips into my belly. “So that your blood doesn’t coagulate,” she explains.

I don’t even wince at the sting – at least one welcome by-product of being subjected to great violence; you become really hard to frighten or sway, not to mention almost immune to pain.

“How long have you been working for Barkley?”

The smile that crosses Yvette’s face is that of a patient wise woman. It fits her better than the tight black dress, I think. “For many years, Saphira.”

“But how come we never met? Are you originally from Northville?”

“Oh yes, I was born here. And you and I met before, a number of times actually. Not that I expected you to remember, you’re high society, crème de la crème, I’m working class – the well-paid and well-connected layer of it, I admit, but still just a face in the crowd.”

A face in the crowd . . .

“I’ve even been at your graduation party – a big one your mother threw there, wow,” she continues. “I was at the Manor on the Night of Venice as the Marquis presented you as his girlfriend, and at the Christmas party at your house as your father announced your engagement to the Marquis. I attended your engagement banquet at the Manor too.” She gives me a meaningful, naughty look. “You and the Marquis came to greet us after you came back from your . . . “

That night flashes through my memory. Kieran doing it to me down in the dungeons, then displaying me all over the banquet hall, my arm hooked around his. It was surely clear to everyone that we’d just ravished each other, and Kieran made a point of it. And then it hits me.

Images and events rush through my mind one after the other – the Opera House. Lauren. Billy singing on the stage, his voice angelic; Jeremy befriending Billy, the boys in the catacombs; Lauren following; Vivien and I keeping back, scared. A face in the crowd. Basarab, Ivan.

Jeremy was the most popular boy in town back when we were teenagers. He’d give me those cocky grins that made me melt. He kissed me by the thick oak tree in his back yard. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes again was Lauren right by our side, her eyes jealous and her cheeks red. Billy – a thin mouse-faced boy with spectacles and hormone-caused pimples by now – gazed long at Lauren from somewhere behind her. Little Jeanie watching us from up in her room, nose and little chubby palms stuck to the window. Ronald Lord Barkley visiting all our families very often. A face in the crowd. Basarab, Ivan. Again, the Opera House.

Years later, I walked in and saw Jeremy in bed with Lauren. Just months before Jeremy and I were supposed to be married. She said she did it for revenge, but in truth, who was using whom? Billy worked as a notary, sunken in his work in his smoke-filled, cluttered office; still Jeremy’s best friend, and still hopelessly in love with Lauren; it seemed easy for her to manipulate him. He helped with adoptions a lot. Lord Barkley still visited all our families. Vivien on the table, her body arching under electroshocks, her eyes on a face in the crowd. A face in the crowd. The Opera House. Basarab, Ivan.

The big hooded man walking away from Lauren in the rain the night Kieran and I wanted to elope together. Powerful, giving her orders. Lauren Morris, raped by Gunnar years ago. She’d slept with my fiancé, as well as with the family friend Ronald Lord Barkley who should’ve loved her like a father, and who knows with whom else. A face in the crowd, always there, never noticed. The Opera House. Basarab, Ivan.

“Saphira!” Yvette’s voice drills through to me. “What is it girl? You look as if you saw a ghost.”

I stare up at her. “I know who he is, Yvette. I just realized who Ivan Basarab truly is.”

 

To be continued on Friday.

***

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