The debutantes' ball has been a tradition at St. Rosemary's Preparatory School for the past hundred and sixty years. Held every summer, the Ball is an opportunity for the girls of St. Rosemary's to be introduced to the boys of St. Augustine's Academy for Young Men.
Brendan Clark has been in attendance each and every year. And each time he has selected a beautiful young girl, won her affections ... and fed on her blood. And then he slips away into the night, vanishing as suddenly as he arrived.
But when a ferocious vampire attacks the Governor's daughter--and leaves a pile of corpses laying at Brendan's feet--he will be forced to leave his bloodlust behind and become an angel of mercy to a girl in mortal peril.
If only she didn't look so delicious ...
Read the first chapter now!
God it was good to be back in Georgia.
I traveled a lot; it wouldn't do to let anyone become too familiar with my face, or too acquainted with my habits. I had dwellings scattered around the country: Maine, New York, and Virginia on the East Coast, Washington and Oregon on the West, and Mississippi, Alabama, and both Carolinas in the South. I used to keep a place in New Orleans, but Anne Rice had driven all of the real vampires out of Louisiana years ago. Bloody tourists.
But no matter where I slept, Georgia would always be my home. The state had a long history of rebellion. It was one of the original American colonies, and we revolted against the King in 1776. Later, in 1861, we seceded from the Union, although that one didn't work out so well. I admired the state's spirit, and it was good to back amongst the rabble and the rebels.
The sun had disappeared some time ago, but the sky still burned a dull red, and the clouds were painted like blood. The cypress trees were silhouetted against the purple and crimson sky. I forced myself to stand there, forced myself not to look away. My upper lip trembled, revealing brief glimpses of my fangs and betraying my agitation.
I hate the sun. I'm old enough that I can actually withstand quite a bit of direct sunlight, but the damned thing still vexes me. Even after all these years I have to fight not to run screaming from the bloody sun.
Finally the sky became a calm, soothing purple. The full moon was rising over my shoulder, partially obscured by clouds that littered the sky like cotton stained with Tyrian dye. The cicadas began to sing their timbal song, celebrating the heat of summer. I pulled my sunglasses off, threw them onto the passenger seat of my car, and turned to look at the crowd filtering into St. Rosemary's.
St. Rosemary's Preparatory School for Girls was one of the oldest, most respected private schools in Georgia. The main building was in the antebellum tradition, a Georgian Colonial. It was a sprawling, two-story structure with a low-pitched roof and Palladian windows. A tangle of vines crawled up the Eastern wall, and a forest of red cedars stood alongside, reaching up to the sky. The main door was huge, delicately carved from local wood, and capped with a semi-circular fanlight. A long line of well-dressed boys was moving steadily through it.
I narrowed my eyes and flashed my teeth, but quickly regained my composure. Yes, their presence was offensive, but it was also necessary cover. Without those sniveling, self-important boys, I would have had no reason to be there. I surveyed my competition, if you could call them that, as I walked toward the door. I had to give credit where credit was due: all of the boys seemed comfortable, at ease. They had been born into old money, raised in a culture of wealth and power and Southern graces. This little display, this pomp and circumstance, was as natural to them as the hunt was to me.
Their formalwear was expensive and hand-tailored; none of those poorly-fitting, off-the-rack rentals for these young gentlemen. Of course, my tuxedo was a class above, and I wore it with much more sophistication than they could ever manage. I, too, was born to old money, and I had considerably more experience than they did --about two hundred years and fifty years more experience.
The line leading to the door was fifteen boys deep. I walked past them, directly to the reception table set up at the school's entrance. A heavy-set woman with red cheeks, a floral dress, and a gaudy hat was sitting there, taking invitations from the boys before they were allowed inside. I slipped in front of the boy that was talking to her and gave her a brilliant smile. "Good evening, ma'am," I said.
I felt a hand close around my shoulder and my smile froze. I turned around just enough to see the boy I had cut in front of. A storm was brewing in his face and his hand was clenched at his side. "The line starts back there," he said, trying to make his voice sound hard.
"No, the line ends back there. It starts here, so that's where I came," I said with a smile. Then my eyes hardened, and I stared down at the little fool. "I'll be out of your way in a moment."
The boy's self-preservation instinct kicked in; his hand slid off of my body, which drastically improved his chances of keeping it, the glint left his eyes, and he took a step backwards. "Sure, man, whatever."
I ignored the voices behind him, most of them encouraging the boy to "man up" or "kick my ass," and turned back to the reception table, giving the woman sitting there another winning smile. "My apologies, ma'am," I said, and extended a small piece of paper toward her.
She took it automatically, but her face was turning an alarming shade of purple. "Young man!" she said, her jowls jiggling from her vehemence. "Is that how you were taught to comport yourself? Especially at a gathering as prestigious as this?" The poor thing; I was upsetting her sense of propriety. I do love Southern women; they're so much fun to play with.
She glanced down at the paper, and her face scrunched up in confusion. I had given her a small square of perfectly blank parchment. She looked up at me with beady eyes. "What is this?" she demanded.
I dropped my smile and locked eyes with her. She rocked backwards as our minds touched, and a moment later I grabbed her thoughts in an iron grip, my willpower completely dominating her. The expression melted from her face and she started at me dumbly. "That," I said slowly and carefully, "is my invitation."
She looked back down at it, blinked twice, and looked back up at me. I locked eyes with her again, smiled, and raised my eyebrow. I let her feel a little of my own anticipation and excitement, and her face suddenly lit up in a smile. "Why, of course it is!" she said, handing the empty paper back to me. "Welcome to St. Rosemary's, young man."
I bowed toward her. "Why thank you, ma'am. This is such a lovely estate. Almost as lovely as yourself."
"Oh, my," she said, covering her heart primly, but smiling nevertheless. "You are such a flatterer."
"It isn't flattery if it's true, ma'am," I said. Then I turned toward the boy behind me and pinched his cheek between my thumb and forefinger. "Have fun at the party, boys," I said brightly, then slapped him lightly on the face. He was still trying to put his words together when I went inside.
I stepped through the main door and looked around. True, my invitation that night was a fabrication, but no one lived in this part of the school, which meant my entry was not barred. Much the pity for the girls who now called this place home.
The place had hardly changed since the very first debutantes' ball. The candles, both on the walls and on the grand chandelier hanging from the ceiling, had been replaced with electric lights, and there were considerably more Headmistress' portraits hanging on the walls, but the essential nature of the place remained the same. I stood there for a moment, letting nostalgia wash over me.
There were a handful of couples scattered around, sitting on the tiny couches or pressed into the corners, but I knew that most of the people would be on the patio behind the school, standing beneath rented white tents, drinking punch, and occasionally attempting to dance. I walked through the familiar hallways and out the glass double doors.
Floodlights had been set up outside, illuminating the patio and surrounding grass. White Christmas lights hung from the tents, and citronella torches burned, warding away the Georgian insects. A string quartet was set up near the dance floor, and soft music filled the night air. Faculty were scattered around, and dozens of those annoying, presumptuous boys loitered nearby, but they barely registered in my mind.
The girls at this school never failed to impress me. I have hunted in the greatest cities in the world, but the girls at this school were in an altogether different class. Their hair gathered carefully atop their heads, their makeup expertly applied, little white gloves covering delicate hands, dresses of silk and satin hugging every wonderful curve, heirloom necklaces hanging down between ample bosoms. A dull burning sensation crawled up my throat, and I closed my eyes for a moment, savoring it.
Like I said, I do love Southern women.
The debutantes' ball has been a tradition at St. Rosemary's Preparatory School for the past hundred and sixty years. The ball is held every summer, when the girls of St. Rosemary's are introduced to the boys of St. Augustine's Academy for Young Men. It had been a true debutantes' ball in the beginning; the children of Georgia's most prestigious families attended the institutions of Saints Rosemary and Augustine, and the annual ball had been an opportunity for introductions to be made and, in many cases, for marriages to be arranged. That was largely an affectation now; times and mores change, and the girls of St. Rosemary's were no longer as pure as their keepers would like to pretend. When the institutions had opened, the five miles between the two schools had been a serious impediment to any mingling of the student bodies, but the invention of the internal combustion engine had overcome that obstacle, and now there wasn't a girl in the school that hadn't bedded one of the boys of St. Augustine's. But I wasn't interested in their virtue.
Only in their blood.
I stood framed in the doorway, my eyes slowly crawling over the crowd, waiting for someone to strike my fancy. The unlucky winner was standing by the punchbowl, surrounded by a gaggle of other girls. Her eyes were sharp and alert, and her gaze was as intense as my own. The other girls stared at her, watching for her reactions, waiting for her to speak. It was clear that she was the leader of that particular pack. And if my intuition was any good, of the school, as well.
She was tall for a girl, five foot eight or so. Her eyes were wide and brown, and conveyed a shrewd intelligence. Chocolate hair was piled up intricately at the back of her head, and long tendrils fell down past her face, brushing her shoulders. Her gown was deep teal and strapless, and it flared at her waist before spilling onto the ground behind her. Ivory gloves reached up to her elbows, and an ivory locket that must have been almost as old as me hung from her graceful neck. Her skin was clean and tan from lying in the hot Georgia sun. She was absolutely captivating. I adjusted the button on my suit jacket, carefully composed my features into a confident, playful smile, and started across the patio.
I made it ten steps before the monster inside of me growled.
Not in anticipation or hunger, but in warning. I froze in place, becoming as still as a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, and reached out with my senses. I closed my eyes and took in everything around me, the sounds and smells and tastes drifting on the humid night air. I found him a moment later, lurking in the shadows of an old cedar on the grass behind the band. He was tall and blond, with delicate features and an easy, wry smile. Handsome, bordering on pretty.
It was a perfect disguise. There was nothing to give him away, not yet. His skin had not yet taken on its chalk-like pallor, and blood had not yet filled his eyes with brilliant crimson. No talons tipped his fingers, and no fangs filled his smile. There was nothing to betray his true nature to mortal eyes. But I knew precisely what he was.
His presence made me uneasy. Some of our kind prefer the company of others, but I go to great lengths to be alone. It's easier that way; easier to hunt, easier to move, easier to remain hidden. And I felt put-upon that he was here, at the ball I had been attending for the last century and a half. I tried to put those thoughts out of my mind. It was a small world, and I had encountered other vampires in the past. Besides, it wasn't like I owned the place.
... Now that was an interesting idea, I would have to look into becoming a benefactor of St. Rosemary's. The irony would be almost as delicious as the young women the school produced.
Anyway. Although the situation was less than ideal, I was certain that we could make the best of it. There was more than enough food to go around, and if we were careful, two vampires would be no more noticeable than one. I nodded at him, one hunter acknowledging another, and waited for him to bob his head in return. He looked at me for a moment, an unsettling glint in his eyes, then smiled and bowed.
Satisfied, I turned back to the angel I had spied across the dance floor. I put my smile back in place and moved like a shadow through the crowd, slipping between slightly awkward couples until I was standing directly in front of her. She looked at me with something bordering on contempt, a practiced, cultivated air of superiority, but a slow smile spread across her face as she took me in. I took another step forward, took her hand in mine, and lifted it to my lips. "Madam," I said, adding just a hint of a Southern drawl to my voice. I acknowledged the girls surrounding her. "Ladies."
The girls twittered happily, and my angel leaned back slightly, smiling and searching me with apprising eyes. "Why, I don't believe we have been introduced," she said in a drawl that was even more counterfeit than my own.
"Brendan Clark," I said. I placed my hand across my stomach and bowed. "A pleasure to meet you." My eyes traveled up her body as I returned to standing, and the dull burning returned to my throat.
She looked at me with narrow eyes, but the smile never left her face. "Are you new? I thought I knew everyone at St. Augustine's."
My features became serious, and I looked around as if I were afraid of being overheard. Then I leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, "I'll tell you a secret. I'm not supposed to be here."
She drew back and offered me a look of feigned shock. "Why Mr. Clark, are you crashing our party?"
"My dear, the stories about this ball are legendary," I said. Then I looked at her friends and said, "And I can see that I was not misled." The girls again giggled appreciatively. I leaned back in towards my angel and said, "Besides, I've never been one to let rules stop me from having a good time."
She looked at me primly, playing the Southern Belle for all she was worth. "I do believe you are a cad and a scoundrel, Mr. Clark."
"Guilty as charged," I said, bowing my head as if she had paid me an extraordinary compliment.
"I love a bad boy," she said, offering me her gloved hand. "Dance with me."
I led her onto the floor. I bowed, and she curtsied, and we began to move in time to the music. "Wow," she said, "you're pretty good. Most of the guys here can't dance to save their lives."
I briefly reflected on just how well someone would have to dance for me to spare their life, but quickly dismissed the idea. I hadn't taken a life in decades.
I laughed and gave my angel a playfully arrogant look. "I'm not most men." I started moving faster, pulling her through a complicated pattern I had learned when I was in preparatory school, more than two centuries earlier. She struggled to keep up, and was gasping for breath by the time the song came to an end.
She laughed the delighted laugh of a little girl and curtsied again, still playing the Southern belle. "Very impressive, Mr. Clark."
I took her hands and bowed over them, then pulled her in close. The band was now playing a slower number; I wrapped my arm around her waist and placed my hand gently on her back. She gave a little shiver and looked up at me with her big, brown eyes. Her breasts pressed against me, and her perfume--roses and vanilla--filled the air around me. "You're hands are freezing," she said.
She gave another shudder when I traced my fingers up her back. I leaned in close and whispered in her ear. "Terribly sorry, my angel."
She gave me a coy look and tried to suppress a grin. "Mr. Clark," she said, "I don't believe you even know my name."
I threw my hands up in the air. "Ah! Forgive me. I was so lost in your beauty that I assumed you were a celestial creature, and the children of God have no names." Lines like that actually work sometimes, believe it or not, but only in the right situations. The debutantes' ball was a throwback to another era, and everyone here was playing at sophistication and culture. What would have been a lame pickup anywhere else was perfectly in character here. In her mind she was a plantation owner's daughter, just coming of age, and I was her charming suitor.
I looked at her expectantly.
"Charlotte," she said, with another curtsy. "Charlotte Coleville."
My face darkened. "Any relation to Governor Coleville?" I asked.
"Oh," she said, smiling demurely, "you've heard of my daddy?"
I dropped her hands and took a step back. It was a shame. She was lovely. I imagined she tasted delectable.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"I don't do politics," I said. I looked over her form once more, regretfully, then walked away, leaving her standing on the dance floor.
Frustration built up inside of me and I had to struggle to hide my fangs. James Coleville, Governor of Georgia, was neither a particularly bright nor a particularly powerful man, but he was well enough connected to make feeding on his daughter a serious mistake. And since I considered this my home, I didn't want to ruin my reputation here.
I wandered over to the refreshments table and pretended to sample their punch. From the scent of it, it wasn't even spiked. I began to despair for the current crop of Georgian students.
"Did she turn you down?"
I turned around to look at the tiny little blond thing that had spoken to me. She wore a wonderful green dress, her hands were folded in front of her, and she looked at me with wide, emerald eyes. There was absolutely no guile in her, and she put on none of the airs the other girls had affected. I gave her a smirk. "I don't get turned down, dove."
"Then what's the problem?" she asked.
"She isn't my type."
"Charlotte is everybody's type."
"Not mine," I said, agitation in my voice. "Too much baggage." I looked the girl over again, and that dull burning returned to my throat. I'm usually a brunette man, but this creature was rather lovely ... and I hadn't had a thing to eat yet. "Forgive me," I said and bowed over her hand. "My name is Brendan Clark. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Oh, hi," she said, smiling and looking away. "I'm Jessie." And then, as if she suddenly remembered the roles we were all supposed to be playing, she faced me, curtsied, and said "Jessica Sommers."
"Jessie," I asked, "may I have this dance?"
We made small talk as we danced. She asked me about my aspirations, and I took a brief look inside her mind to discover the correct answer. I told her I was an art major, and that I planned on appraising and dealing antiques. She was a graphic designer, though she fancied herself more of a classical painter, and in fact had two pieces on display at the local museum. I was witty and charming and graceful, and she was honest and bright and beautiful.
Twenty minutes later, I led her off the dance floor and out to the cherry trees I knew surrounded the school's medium-sized pond. She took off her shoes as we walked, and I could tell that she was struggling to see where we were going, despite the moonlight. I, of course, could see perfectly well.
"It's chilly out here," she said when we were standing beneath the pink blossoms.
"I'll warm you," I said in a quiet voice, and pushed her gently against a tree, careful not to scratch her exposed back on the rough bark.
"Brendan, I don't think we should ... " she began as my lips graced over the line of her jaw.
"Of course we shouldn't," I murmured in her ear. "That's what makes it exciting." I pulled away long enough to give her a devilish look. "Do you think anyone will catch us?"
She laughed, just a bit nervously, but then my mouth found hers, and she was melting into my arms.
Her mouth was warm against mine, a sensation that never grew old. Our tongues brushed, and then I feathered kisses along her jaw and nibbled at her ear. Quiet sounds of pleasure escaped from her. Then my lips danced across her throat, her pulse pounding just beneath the surface. I ran my tongue over her skin, tasting the salt and feeling her veins trembling inside of her.
She never saw me change, but that's understandable ... she was a bit preoccupied. If her eyes had been open, if she had been paying attention, she would have seen the color drain from my skin and my once-dark eyes fill with vermilion. She would have seen my teeth become pointed and sharp, and my canines extend into gleaming fangs.
But she didn't see, and so she simply clung to me, hapless in my arms. She made a pained noise as my fangs pierced her skin, and her body tensed, but soon she relaxed and began making happy noises again. My bite intoxicated her. There is some debate as to whether this is another manifestation of our psychic abilities, or if there's actually something in our saliva that produces the euphoric sensation in our victims, but none of us are stupid enough to submit ourselves to a laboratory for testing. We do know, however, that we can suppress this ecstatic sensation if we so choose.
I hadn't bitten deeply, and her blood came to me in an easy trickle, not the heady rush that you get from a properly torn throat. Warm copper filled my mouth, and I let out a happy groan of my own. My heart began to beat as living human blood filled me. Jessica's emotions became clear to me as I drank from her; she was thrilled to have been noticed by such an exotic looking man as me, and she was excited about the guilty pleasure of stolen kisses in the moonlight. She was looking forward to telling her friends the scandalous tale the next morning; they would never believe that she had acted so brashly. The poor fool.
The monster inside of me began to rise up, and I had to fight to keep it locked away. I took one more sip of her piquant blood, then forced myself to pull away. I had taken enough to sate my hunger; any more and I would risk losing control of myself and killing the girl. I pulled away from her and she swooned in my arms. Her eyes were lulling closed, and I had to hold her upright.
Blood still trickled from the wound at her neck. I extended a talon, pricking my own finger, and applied my own blood to the bite mark. Her skin knit itself closed, and I licked her throat clean.
"That was some kiss," the girl said sleepily.
"Yes it was," I said, smiling at her. I took her chin between my fingers and locked eyes with her. Our minds brushed, and then I took hold of her. "Forget me," I whispered.
I didn't wipe her mind completely. She would remember dancing with me, but she wouldn't be able to remember my face. She would remember kissing me beneath the cherry blossoms, but the details would be hazy. She would remember her euphoria, but the bite that had caused it would be lost in a fog of confusion. I laid her down on the grass, covered her with her shawl, and walked away.
That's how it's done, these days. I could have killed her, easily, and hidden the body. And the monster within me was still perturbed that I wasn't doing precisely that. And I could have set aside all attempts to be charming or dashing or romantic, though it certainly helped. I could have killed everyone at the party in a matter of minutes, and my hunter's senses would have led me unerringly to anyone that tried to escape. I could have turned the debutantes' ball into a bloodbath, and I would have relished every moment of it.
But that simply wasn't an option. As powerful as I am, I'm still no match for a guy with silver bullets and a flamethrower. Even the traditional mass of villagers with torches and pitchforks could cause problems, if there were enough of them and they caught you by surprise. So we behaved ourselves. Only the youngest or most reckless killed their victims; we mature, modern vampires charmed, fed, covered our tracks, then disappeared into the night as quickly as we had appeared.
We had domesticated ourselves.
I was walking through the party, on my way back to my car, when I heard a girl's scream, low and muffled, probably hidden from mortal ears. I shook my head. My blond friend was apparently much less subtle--or a much worse kisser--than me.
I was prepared to walk away when another scream cut through the night. This one drew the attention of everyone at the ball. The music and conversations stopped and everyone was looking around, searching for the source of the cry.
My face clouded. "Idiot." I walked around the corner of St. Rosemary's main building, to where I knew the scream had originated. "You bloody fool," I said, "what in hell's name is wrong with you? Everyone out there ... heard ... "
I stopped, dumbfounded. The blond vampire looked at me with feral eyes and smiled with a mouth full of fangs. His white shirt was drenched in red, and thick blood ran down his face. His hands were covered in gore. The bodies of three girls lay at his feet, throats torn brutally open, their life spilled out on the stone patio. He held a fourth girl in his arms; she writhed and struggled to escape, and she was bleeding from the neck.
"Oh, you," he said nonchalantly. "I saw you with this one earlier, but then you went off with that blond thing and I figured you were done with her. I didn't mean to intrude." He spun the girl around and shoved her toward me. "Don't worry, there's more than enough to share."
The girl stumbled forward and collapsed into my arms. Her wide brown eyes looked up at me helplessly. Her wry confidence was gone, replaced by confusion and fear. "Please," she said, "help me."
It was Charlotte Coleville.
I took hold of the girl automatically and held her upright. I looked at the other vampire incredulously. "What the hell, man? What in the bleeding hell? What's wrong with you? Do you have any idea how much trouble you're in? The Regent will have your head on a spit! God, even if you could get rid of the bodies, there's enough blood on the ground for, well, three people. What the hell?"
The vampire looked at me sadly. "Ah, another neutered creature of the night. How sad. I thought, when I saw you, that you might have a bit of the animal still inside of you. I guess I was wrong."
Wonderful. Look, I understand having issues with authority; vampires aren't exactly known for playing by the rules. But I don't work out my authority issues by slaughtering the daughters of some of the most powerful men in Georgia. I stared at the blond idiot, wondering exactly what I should do.
I didn't have long for reflection. A group of people came running around the corner; the Headmistress, two faculty members, and two of the burlier specimens from St. Augustine's. "What's going on here?" the Headmistress demanded, but her voice cut off when she saw the carnage on display. The faculty members stood mute beside her.
The young men from St. Augustine's were just as shocked at what they saw, but one of them still managed to move forward. A fierce look appeared on his face, and he stalked toward the blood-covered vampire, preparing to apprehend him.
The fool never knew what hit him. The vampire extended his talons and slashed, and the boy's throat simply disappeared. Bright red mist arced through the air, covering the vampire, the walls, and the ground in thick arterial spray. The boy collapsed to the ground and looked at us with dead eyes.
"Oh, God," Charlotte whimpered, and buried her head in my shoulder. The dead boy's friend vomited and ran. The faculty members stood frozen in place.
The vampire let out a wicked laugh and ran off into the night.