Excerpt from REAL VAMPIRES: A HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1604

I woke up starving, which I’d learned was normal for new vampires. I wasn’t ravenous for the man next to me, though I realized Jeremiah Campbell was staring at me with his usual hunger. I slid my hand over his bare chest, very aware of his need and my own. We slept naked and his hard length pressed against my thigh. Oh, yes, my man wanted me. I inhaled and moved closer, hungry for more than his body.

No, my new fangs were down and I thirsted. I sat up. Yes, Jeremiah’s lovemaking tempted me, but what made me insane was something in the air. Not the smell of fresh bread coming from the next room. That did nothing for me. Just a week ago Gloriana St. Clair would have been desperate to tear into baked goods. No, what made me eager to crawl out from under the coverlet was the call of human blood from the next room. It was rich, flowing through veins made special by…

“Stop it, Gloriana. You will not drink from Maggie.” Jeremiah was suddenly on top of me, his hands on my shoulders, though the bulk of him was enough to pin me to the mattress.

“I know that. She is with child. I couldn’t…” I bit my lip. Oh, stupid. My fangs drew blood. That made Jeremiah’s brows rise and his own fangs descend. “Now look at you. First, you think to use me to ease your lust.” I nudged that eager part of him with my knee. “Then you think to drink, sirrah?” I ran a fingertip across his chest. “When I am weak with hunger? I cry foul.”

“I think you have enough energy for a bit of loveplay.” He leaned down to kiss me, the novelty of making our fangs work together not exactly to my liking.

“Stop!” I shoved at him. “What do we do to slake my thirst?” I ran my fingers over his chin, rough with his evening whiskers. “You look a bit pale to me. I don’t think you should serve me yet again.”

“True. You are very greedy, my love.” He smiled down at me. “Not that I mind when you are generous with me in return. With your body.” He lifted the coverlet and kissed a path to my breast, making me sigh. “And with your life force.” He pressed his lips to the vein in my throat. “Delicious.”

“I love you, Jeremiah.” I ran my hands over his strong shoulders then pulled his face to mine for another kiss. The way vampires made love and shared blood during it had been a revelation to me. But he was my sire now. I needed him to guide me and I was really, really being driven mad by that scent coming from the next room.

I gave Jeremiah a gentle shove. “Fergus is with Maggie. Your shifter has become my friend so I cannot imagine asking him to let me drink from him.” I also knew he was too strong to be taken against his will. “So what do I do now?”

“No, we will never drink from Fergus unless it cannot be helped.” He rolled off of me and put his hands behind his head. “It is time for me to teach you how to hunt.”

“Strangers? People we stalk like prey?” I shuddered at the thought. So far, in the few days I’d been vampire, I’d only taken blood from my lover. “Can we not go on as before? I will drink from your vein again.” Seemed like a perfect plan to me. I touched his vein. “I promise to restrain myself.”

“An easy promise but I doubt you can keep it, my love. It is natural for you to be greedy now. You must become independent, able to find your own sources.” He smiled at me, his fangs hidden again. “I love giving you my blood, Gloriana, but, as your sire, it is my responsibility to teach you our ways. All of them. Where do you suppose I get the strength to give you blood each night? I have been hunting without you. It’s past time for you to go with me. Take someone yourself.”

I swallowed, my stomach pitching. Take someone? I’d begged Jeremiah to make me vampire. Because I loved him and wanted to be with him forever. In his arms, knowing he was leaving any day for his home in Scotland, I hadn’t really taken time to think about the realities of being a vampire.

I had wanted this tie to him. No matter the cost. But this? Why would I need to be independent? He’d said I would accompany him to Castle Campbell. A castle. The thought made me shrink. How could I be good enough to meet a fine family with his father, the Laird, as head of it?

Independence. Was he already considering replacing me? Leaving me for another woman? I knew better than to dwell on that notion. He could and usually did read my mind. Luckily he had left the bed and stood at the water basin, scrubbing his face and cleaning his teeth. I did like the way he always took care of himself. It was just another sign that he’d been raised by a well-bred family, one that would take one look at a woman chance met in an alley and…

“Shall I tell Fergus to prepare a bath for you before we go?” He glanced at me over his shoulder.

I threw back the coverlet. Enough of these gloomy thoughts. Jeremiah loved me. I must have something of worth to offer this man besides my skills in the bedchamber. He was taking to meet this formidable family of his, after all.

“A bath? I would love that. What should I wear for hunting?” I walked behind him and threw my arms around his lean waist, resting my cheek on his back. He was so well-made, tall and muscular. He bore scars from the days before he had been turned vampire, testament to having been a warrior then. I loved his rugged masculinity.

I was still getting used to the fact that we were both barely warm, not the same temperature as when I had been human. That thought stopped my breath. Wait. What breath? Jeremiah assured me I had no need to breathe, yet I still did. A habit, he claimed, that I could stop at any time. No longer human. Then what was I? Monster? No, I wouldn’t accept that. Certainly I didn’t think of my lover that way. I tightened my arms around him.

“Wear black to blend into the night.” He turned in my arms and stared down at me, his dark eyes intent. “We are hunters, Gloriana, searching for prey as you said. I see your concerns. You are beautiful, the only woman I love. It will take time for you to adjust to your new state. I know this. But I am not going to let you pretend you are someone you are not. We can put this hunt off no longer.”

I shuddered. He did not bother to spare my feelings. “Jeremiah, I don’t know if I can do this. We won’t kill anyone, will we? I have never taken a life. I can’t imagine…”

“No, ´tis not necessary. I will show you. We take just enough blood to survive. Then erase the memory of the attack in our source’s mind and move on. This is important.” He let me go and pulled on his breeches. “I will get Fergus to arrange your bath. Now pull on a robe. Do you need Maggie’s help?”

“Nay, I am used to taking care of myself.” I was, in fact, unused to having servants at all. In truth, Fergus was more protector than servant, guarding us during the day while we slept like the dead. Maggie had been my friend before she’d fallen in love with Fergus. Lucky for her he returned her affection, since her former so-called husband had abandoned her without a by-your-leave.

Until Jeremiah took me under his protection I had been starving in the back of the Globe Theater, a widow with no resources except for my looks. Master Shakespeare had been patient, but had finally, after a year, advised me to find another man to care for me. My choices had been to stroll the alley looking for a protector with kind eyes or turn prostitute. I’d been very lucky that I’d chanced on Jeremiah. The fact that he’d turned out to be a vampire? Well, as they say– beggars cannot be choosers. I had certainly been a beggar then.

 

It took a little while to bathe and dress in dark clothes with a black cloak over all, a hood covering my bright blonde hair. By the time we were outside on the street, the moon was high but covered with clouds.

“A fine dark night. Take my arm and pay attention to what I say and do, Gloriana.” Jeremiah patted my hand. He was dressed in a dark jacket and pantaloons. His waistcoat was black and he wore his jacket buttoned to his neck to hide his white cravat. We could easily blend into the shadows as we approached the lane where some vendors plied their wares even though it was late.

Prostitutes called to men who stumbled out of pubs the worse for drink. Some of the women gained favor and tugged a customer into an alley. The grunts and groans that followed made it clear that coin had quickly changed hands. I shivered, thinking how close I had come to being that desperate for a way to live.

“My love, you would never have needed to become a ha’penny whore.” Jeremiah leaned down and kissed my cheek. “If I had not swept you away that night, another man would have seen your charms and set you up in fine style, I am sure of it.”

“I will always be grateful to you, love, never doubt it. That other man might not have been as kind and generous to me as you have been.” I had met nobles since then who had shown me just how cruel men could be to the women they “protected.”

“I know that. The idea that you could have fallen prey to some man’s perversions makes me want to hold you close and never let you go.” He pulled me against him, his arms like steel bands around me. “No one will harm you while I am your sire, Gloriana. I swear it. Believe that if you believe nothing else.”

I looked up at him, thrilled anew at my luck and the blessing of having found him. “I am beginning to believe it, Jeremiah. Thank you. You certainly make me feel safe when I am with you. Always.”

He relaxed and kissed my forehead. “Good. Now we must be about our business.” He looked up and down the street as he released me, his eyes narrowed.

I wondered how he would decide who to drink from. I certainly had no desire to touch a whore who could very well be full of the pox. Or drag one of the drunken lords into an alley. Would blood from a man full of rum taste of it?

“I avoid drinking blood full of spirits. Though it will give you something of a feeling like you’ve imbibed yourself.” He tightened his grip on my arm. “There. That is the kind of drink I want for your first time.”

“Drink?” What I saw was a woman hurrying from a vendor’s stall, her head down as she tried to get past a tavern without being accosted. When a man grabbed at her skirt, she hit his knuckles a good whack with her umbrella. He cursed and followed her, jumping in front of her and grabbing her basket of bread.

“Excuse me, madam.” Jeremiah was suddenly in front of her, bowing and doffing his hat. “Is this man bothering you?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just picked up the drunk and hurled him away. The fool bounced on the stones, took one look into Jeremiah’s face then howled and ran.

I had no doubt Jeremiah had shown his fangs. But when he turned back to the woman, he was calm and appeared perfectly normal. I moved closer.

“Thank you, sir. I know it’s foolish to come out so late, but bread is cheaper now.” She stared down at her basket. “May I offer you a loaf?”

“No, thank you. My lady and I were just coming home from the theater. But pray, let us see you home safely.” He turned to me and held out his hand. “Gloriana, you don’t mind a slight detour, do you, my dear?”

“No, of course not. Madam, where do you live?” I smiled, careful to keep my fangs out of sight. The woman’s blood was singing to me. Her stale bread? I didn’t even notice it.

“At the end of the alley, just there.” She pointed and made a face. “If the trollops didn’t ply their trade there, I would have just run that way and already be gone.” She relaxed when the whore’s customer came out, buttoning his trousers. The trollop sauntered out, tucking coin into her bodice. When she saw us watching her, she turned away, going on down the street after another likely prospect. At the last moment, she flipped up her skirt, showing us her bare bum.

“Well! I’ll be off now.” The woman flushed and clutched her basket as she turned toward the alley.

“Come, it is no trouble for us to see you to your door. Is anyone waiting for you?” Jeremiah offered each of us an arm.

“No, I am alone since my Billy died. Carriage accident.” Her voice was bitter. “The toffs don’t care who they run down when they are in a hurry.”

“I am so sorry.” I had to skip to keep up with Jeremiah as he escorted us down the alley.

“I do all right. I take in sewing. Lucky for me, I have a fine hand with a needle.” She stopped at a door. “Here we are.” She pulled her key out of her bodice. “Thank you. I’ll not do this again. Walk out so late. I learned my lesson.”

Jeremiah stared into her eyes until she was suddenly unable to move, frozen in place. That ability of Jeremiah’s was a vampire skill I did not admire. He had used it on me and I hated being powerless. Now he took her key out of her hand and unlocked her door, stepping inside to make sure she truly lived alone.

“Come in, Gloriana. The room is small but clean. The woman is clean as well. That’s why I chose her.”

“Jeremiah, this feels so wrong.” I stood back when he guided the woman inside before he closed the door and locked it. The woman was like a statue, her eyes unseeing. I waved my hand in front of her eyes to be sure, making Jeremiah laugh at me.

“Don’t be foolish, Gloriana. You know how this works. She will not hear us or feel what we do to her as long as she is in this state.” He took the woman’s basket and set it on her crude table. Then he removed her shabby cloak and hung it on a peg. “Darling, you are going to have to learn all of this. How to make a mortal obey your will and even how to choose the right one.”

“It is beastly!” I shook my head. “She is helpless.”

“It is how we survive, my love. Would you rather she be afraid? Know what we are about?”

“Of course not!” I was horrified. She would struggle, scream when she saw our fangs. Because mine were certainly down, here in her little room, so near to her mortal blood. Dear God, I had become a monster.

“Darling, calm down. You will get used to this. I swear it.” He took my hand. “Now come closer. Smell her blood. Tell me what you think.”

I moved in almost against my will. Smell her blood? I had been unable to smell anything else since we’d met her. I put my nose near her neck where I could hear her blood pumping through her vein. Then I closed my eyes and concentrated. How to describe it?

“It smells good.” Oh, surely I could do better than that. “I mean, it smells rich. Like a fine pudding or good red wine.”

“Excellent. I know you are new to this, but that is a fair description. If you inhaled and you smelled something disgusting, like dead fish, a chamberpot or rotten flesh, would you drink that person’s blood?”

I swallowed, wondering if vampires could cast up their accounts. The urge to do so was strong. “No! I imagine that would be wrong. It would surely be a sign of sickness.”

“You are right. Clean fresh blood smells like this woman’s life force.” He guided the woman to a stool. “Now it’s time for you to drink from her.”

Dear God, he was going to make me do this and I didn’t even know her name. “Jeremiah, this is so cold and calculating.”

“We will leave her coin. After we are done, we will give her a memory of finding a purse in the road. It will make her happy and she will never know what happened here. She was desperate for money. Look around here, Gloriana.” He gestured at the small room.

I did look. The poor woman slept on a pallet on the floor. The table was wobbly and she had only the three-legged stool. She washed in a cracked bowl and her pitcher had a broken spout. One other dress hung on a peg and I knew the only shoes she owned were on her feet. Since I’d met Jeremiah, I’d been blessed with many fine things—shoes, capes, dresses so fancy they’d been worn to meet the king. This woman had the bread in her basket and a small piece of hard cheese. There was no other food in sight.

“Can we not just leave the money and go?” I said it but didn’t mean it. Leave this delicious blood that had pulled me so close I could feel the heat of this mortal woman?

Jeremiah smiled. He knew I wasn’t about to stop now. “Truly? Go to the door then. Wait outside and I’ll taste–”

I shoved him aside. “She’s mine. You picked her out for me.” Oh, what had I become? I didn’t even have coin to pay the woman. Jeremiah carried what we needed. That would have to change if I was to be “independent”. But then could it? That would make me no better than a whore, paid for lying with my man. I pushed those thoughts aside. I thirsted and my fangs were down, eager to get on with this.

“Of course I did. I am glad to see you understand what we are about here.” He pulled a knife from his belt and picked up her arm. Without hesitation he sliced across her wrist.

Blood welled from the cut. I heard a growl and realized it had come from my own throat. I moved even closer by instinct.

“Take this. You know what to do, you’ve done it before on my wrist and at my throat.” Jeremiah’s grin was wicked. “And then at my thigh. I admit I like that the best.”

I paused long enough to slap his arm for bringing up that naughty bit when I was so crazed with bloodlust and nerves. I took the woman’s wrist carefully. It was painfully thin. That made me stop and take one of those unnecessary breaths.

“You will leave a healthy purse, Jeremiah. The woman cannot spare this blood. Look at her.” I was carrying the wrist to my mouth even as I said this. Oh, the smell. I couldn’t have stopped if I had really tried.

“A healthy purse. Of course. She is your first. A signal honor.” His hand landed on my back, gentle and encouraging. “There you go. A fine beginning.”

Because I was in, taking her vein and drinking as if I would never feast again. I had a fleeting thought that I didn’t want to kill her, but it was very fleeting. I was in heaven. The taste, the heat. Dear God, the heat. I held on with both hands and fell to my knees beside her. Moaning, I was moaning. I would have been disgraced if I’d had good sense. I had none. All my sense had fled at the first taste of her.

Jeremiah finally ripped me away, his hands rough on my face as he pried my fangs out of her thin wrist. “Stop. Put your head to her chest, Gloriana. Listen for her heartbeat.”

“I want–”

“I said to listen to her heartbeat. I am not playing with you. Do it now.”

I put my head against the woman’s chest. Oh, how I wish we’d asked her name! She had full breasts and I had a wisp of memory. Mother? No, it was imagination. I had no memory of who I’d been or where I’d come from before my husband, an actor at the Globe, had found me unconscious in an alley years ago. All I’d known was the name Gloriana. I’d taken Michael’s last name though we’d never actually married. My pretend husband had been kind enough to care for me before he died in a foolish accident.

Oh, why was I thinking about him now? I was supposed to be listening for a heartbeat.  Was she dead? God, no! But I finally heard it—a heartbeat—very faint, very slow.

“What have I done? She’s near death, I think. From my greed.” I looked up at Jeremiah. Looking grim, he held out a flask he pulled from a pocket in his coat.

“Give her wine. You did almost kill her. That’s the problem with new vampires. They have no control. I will not let you go out on your own, unsupervised until you master it. For now, you will promise to do better next time, Gloriana. Pay attention to your blood source.”

“Victim, you mean. I will certainly try, Jeremiah. Look at her, so pale and near death. I am so ashamed.” I took the bottle and forced some red wine between her lips. She drank obediently. That encouraged me. I leaned down and listened again. “Stronger, thank God. Now what?”

“Now you lick the wound closed. Remember?” He smiled indulgently, clearly relieved that I had stopped in time. He was training me like one of his soldiers when he’d led men on the battlefield.

“Yes, sir.” I gave him a salute. I was proving a good pupil, I hoped. Of course I’d almost killed the poor woman. Not exactly sterling behavior.

“Now get her basket and her cloak and go outside. We will take her back to her door and put the purse in her hand. Plant the idea that she found the money and wish her good night.” He watched me do his bidding. “How do you feel?”

“Amazing.” I stopped and kissed him. “Thank you. For being patient with me.”

“I would do anything for you. I hope you know that.”

“Anything?” I gave him a saucy look. “We’ll see about that.” I stood in the alley while he brought her out. Then I looked around, glad no one had ventured into the filthy place to witness this. “You told me before that we don’t really feel the cold.” I wore a fine cloak and hadn’t put it to the test but noticed the woman’s breath did cloud the air.

“No. It’s a good thing about our nature.” He smiled when I took off my cloak and wrapped it around the woman’s shoulders.

“She needs it more than I do. You have bought me so many lovely things.” I stepped out of his way so he could shut and lock her door. I watched him carefully as he stared into her eyes again after he put the key in her hand, along with the money.

“You are home safe now, madam. Wake and we will be on our way.” He touched her on the chin and she startled as if waking from a dream.

“Oh, thank you for walking me home. You never know what will happen.” She glanced down at the pouch in her hand. “What’s this?”

“Aren’t you lucky to have found those coins? Some poor fool will think twice before he drinks too much in a tavern again, I vow.” I took Jeremiah’s arm. “Good evening to you.”

“Wait! I found this?” She peered into the leather purse. “It is a fortune!”

“We came upon you right after it happened. That’s why we decided you needed escort home. Cutpurses are everywhere.” Jeremiah bowed to her. “Take care. No more late night walks for you, I hope.”

“Oh, no. With this much money I can even afford to move to a better room, set up as a seamstress.” She looked around at the squalid alley. “I, I can’t believe it. And this cloak?” She ran her fingers over the fine wool. “Surely I didn’t find that as well.”

“No, it is a gift. From me. Please take it. I have a new one at home.” I gave her a quick hug when I saw tears in her eyes. “I have been very lucky since I met this man. I lost my husband in a nasty accident as well. I hope you will find happiness again someday as I have.” I had no other advice to give her. What other choice did a woman have but to find a husband or protector? We heard voices as another prostitute dragged a customer into our alley. I would be forever grateful to Jeremiah but would have given anything for a way to be truly independent.

“Hurry now. On your way. I won’t be sorry to move and that’s a fact.” She pulled my cloak around her and clutched the heavy purse. “I have guardian angels to thank for that.”

“Go inside and eat a bit of that bread. Tomorrow you can pack and move.” Angels? Devils more like. If she only knew what I had done to her! She still looked pale and put a hand on the wall to steady herself. I had used the woman and wasn’t proud of it. The cloak was a trifle compared to how she’d gifted me with her lifeblood. The whore started haggling for her price and her customer tugged down her bodice to expose her breasts. I hurried away, shame burning my cheeks.

“Gloriana, you will have to get used to this. She will recover quickly and look how we have helped her. What was a fortune to her was but a trifle to me.” Jeremiah pulled me to a stop. “Do you want another lesson? You can watch me feed. Or should I take you home first?”

I pressed a fist to my stomach. Contrary to what Jeremiah claimed, I did feel the chill in the air without my cloak. Watch him feed? No, thank you.

“Please, take me home first. I have had enough education about vampires for one night, I think.” I looked up at him. “I love you, but this is…too much.”

“You will have to come to terms with it, Gloriana. There is no going back.” He kissed my cheek then put his arm around me. “Home it is.”

No going back. I knew that and had made my choice. But the reality? Well, the terms were harsh. If I ever could just callously take blood and move on, then I really would no longer be human. That thought made me shiver and it wasn’t from the cold.

What had I done in the name of love?

GERRY BARTLETT, Copyright 2018.

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