Two hundred years ago, Epiphany was reborn a vampire. Sired by Renata, the Queen of the Rosso Lussuria, Epiphany willingly played the role of the queen’s beloved pet—until she was cast from Renata’s bed and lost her protection from the Elder vampires. Epiphany has done her best not to become a target, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, like a long-forgotten memory huddling beneath the mantle of Vasco’s power, her one true friend among the Rosso Lussuria. Now Renata has called Epiphany forth to face the challenges ahead that could elevate her clan status to the ranks of an Elder. But Epiphany has few friends and many enemies, and the chances of surviving the challenges are slim. Surrounded by harsh vampire politics and secret ambitions, Epiphany learns that an old enemy is plotting treason against the woman she once loved, and to save all she holds dear, she must embrace and form an alliance with the dark.
England, 1810 Life and death placed a wager and my body was their playing ground.
Sleep would not come.
Having been bedridden for too many days to keep track of, I grew restless. It was not a restlessness of the body, for my body was sore and weary from fighting the long battle.
I was wasting away, pale and bird-thin, with Death’s kiss lingering like half moons beneath my lashes.
She would take me slowly, this merciless lover.
I needed to feel the cool night air against my skin. The room was stuffy, suffused with warmth from the glow of a bedside lantern. Having a room of my own had at first been a pleasant respite. Now, the walls silently mocked me like the bars of a prison. They confined me. The solitude was a painful reminder of my failing health.
The others would not come near me unless they had to.
I forced myself out of the bed, fighting the cutting betrayal of my body. I slipped my feet into a pair of slippers and retrieved the thick woolen cloak from the armoire, sluggishly settling it about my shoulders. Ironic, that I would take such a precaution given my condition.
Most certainly, if I was caught leaving the cage of my bedroom, let alone the manor house, I would experience the verbal chastisement of my aunt, who made a fairly convincing warden.
I no longer cared.
The condemnation of death has a way of teaching one about such things.
The opinion of my aunt and her household were of little importance to me. If it was the last time I would see the light of the full moon high above, so be it. I wanted it.
I grabbed the lantern from the bedside table and set about making my way through the house. It wasn’t so difficult to do. I’d been a housemaid in my aunt’s care long enough that I knew the place.
The bolt on the door slid with a quiet click.
The night air pierced my lungs like a blade, sharp and cramping. I headed in the direction of the woods, a place I often went to be alone with my thoughts. Each step of the way, my body protested from weeks of inactivity and abuse. My ribcage felt eternally bruised, beaten by the persistent fits of coughing that had plagued me for weeks.
Each day, the coughing grew worse. Each day, the invisible vice around my chest tightened.
Inevitably, the illness would consume me as it had my father. With every second that passed, the weight of Death’s hand grew heavier.
I clutched the cloak to my body, following the spill of lamplight with slow and careful steps.
I was nearly to the woods when the sound of hoofbeats carried like quiet thunder through the night. A handful of riders burst from the woods on horses as fast as hellions.
I stood there dumbly, too scared and weak to run. The lantern trembled in my grasp. One rider rode forward on his mount, and the lamp’s glow illuminated his pale face and sharp features. He set heels to his horse and the lantern slipped from my fingers. Reality came crashing down a little too late.
Strong hands gripped my waist, tearing the ground from under me.
The sound of heavy iron clanking startled me awake. With it came cries of alarm and desperate sobs. Somewhere in the room a woman murmured a frantic prayer.
I dare say none of the noise quite compared to the roll of nausea that turned my stomach. I moved, only to find that my hands had been inconveniently bound behind my back. I managed to sit up, leaning back against a corner of the cell when a spill of light flooded the room, blinding and painful.
I forced myself to breathe past the pain. I’d spent weeks feeling as if my lungs were being cut out of me. A little headache was not so much compared to that. When the light was no longer blinding, I recognized the tall man with the sharp, hawk-like features. His long brown hair shimmered like polished wood in the low light. He pointed at two girls huddled in a corner of the cell and two men, one with red hair, the other black, swept past him.
The girls tried to hold on to each other when the men pulled them apart. They screamed, sending the subsiding pain in my skull back to piercing. If my hands had not been bound, I would have covered my ears. As it was, I huddled in the corner, wincing, and praying for them to make the girls quiet. Perhaps it was crude and selfish, but in that moment, all I wanted was for the pain to stop.
The girls were taken from the cell. Their screams ended, though the quiet sobbing and frantic prayers did not. A man crawled out from an opposite corner of the cell, beseeching the man with the hawk’s nose with his upturned face.
“Please, sir,” he begged in a raw voice, “I have a family.”
Hawk-nose ignored him, turning his attention toward the door. I followed his somber expression.
A woman appeared in the doorway in a gown of exquisite white silk, striding into the room like a bright beacon, casting a glorious light into the dark hell of my prison. Her hair tumbled to her hips in waves like those of a black sea.
“This is all?” she asked in a voice that was languorous and sweet.
“Sì,” hawk-nose said. “We seek your permission to hunt again on the morrow.”
She spared a cold glance out over the cell, completely overlooking me where I huddled on the floor.
“You have it,” she said.
The man that had begged hawk-nose hobbled forward on his knees. His blond hair was dirty and stubble showed at his chin.
“Please, great lady, I have a family to provide for,” his words sped up, “mouths to feed. Please, great lady, whatever you do, spare me.”
She turned her attention to him, giving me the marvelous view of her frosty profile.
“As do I,” she replied in a voice as cold and unmoving as winter.
He continued to beg. She turned, ignoring him as much as hawk-nose had. Her fine silks trailed across the stone floor.
I inhaled and a fit of coughing seized me. Something thick threatened to block my airway. I bent at the waist, unable to stop the wracking cough. The pain blossomed behind my ribs, spreading out across my torso like angry claws.
I held my breath, trying to control the cough when at last it won.
I didn’t need to see my face to know that bloody sputum had trickled out across my lower lip. I could taste the metallic tinge of blood in my mouth.
Short of breath and dizzy, I willed myself not to fight the pain. The more I fought it, the more it hurt.
I felt the brush of cloth against my mouth and jerked away, shoving myself against the wall.
The eyes that met mine were not one solid blue. They were the blue of a midnight sky flecked with shards like a bright summer day.
“Severiano.” Her voice carried through the cell, making me shudder, making my pulse leap frantically beneath my skin. She touched my cheek, and I fought not to flinch. When I didn’t, when I had no more room in which to huddle, she brought the dark cloth up and wiped the rest of the blood from my lips.
I frowned, not understanding that small act of compassion.
“This girl is sick,” she said. “Have the Cacciatori become such lazy hunters as to prey upon the weak and unwell?”
Hawk-nose gave a small bow at her side. “We did not know that she was sick, Padrona, only that she did not run. We did not think anything strange of it.”
She folded her slim fingers around the black handkerchief. Her other hand rose to cup my chin with cool fingers. I shivered.
“Is it true?” she whispered, eyeing me intently. “You did not run from the Cacciatori?”
I made no reply.
She leaned back on her heels. “What is your name?”
“Epiphany,” I whispered.
“Epiphany,” she said as if tasting it. She tilted her head. “Severiano.”
Her fingers tickled down my cheek.
“Bring her to me…unharmed.” With that, she stood in all her white glory and left.
I swallowed, feeling as if I would choke on my pulse.
Hawk-nose went to the door, speaking in a language I did not understand. When he returned and clutched my arm to drag me to my feet, I didn’t fight him. The dark-haired man that had helped take the two girls stood by the door. Hawk-nose shoved me in his direction, and I stumbled, tripping over my own feet and falling.
Someone caught me.
“She said unharmed, Severiano,” the man said.
I really was unwell, for he had moved fast enough that the wave of nausea threatened to return. I swayed on my feet, held upright only by the man’s arm around my waist.
I was going to be sick.
“I know that, Dominique.”
“Then learn how to follow orders,” said Dominique, keeping me from toppling over. “Are you all right?” he asked me.
“Does it matter if I’m not?” I retorted, rather boldly given the situation.
The world swayed and he cradled me in against his bulky chest.
I met his blue-gray gaze. “I’m already dying,” I said. “If you think you can scare me more than the death I face, you’re wrong.”
“You’re not dead yet, piccolo,” he said, carrying me out of the room. “If you want to keep it that way, keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told. There are things far worse than death in the Sotto.”
“Sotto?” I asked, eyeing the stone walls illuminated by torchlight. “That is this place? The place Hawk-nose has brought me?”
“Hawk-nose?” he asked.
“Uh, you know, the man with the nose,” I said, gesturing at my face.
His laugh rumbled against my body.
“Our Queen may like you very much, piccolo.”
“Queen?” I asked, thinking furiously as he turned down a hallway. “The woman in the cell was your Queen?”
“Who are you?”
He stopped. “If the Queen of the Rosso Lussuria has chosen you, you will know.”
“Chosen me for what?”
“You will see.”
“You are vague,” I said, teeth chattering with cold. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“And you’re very brave for a girl that has been taken from her world and brought into ours.”
I forced myself to smile weakly. “I’ve had some time to become fairly well acquainted with the idea of my death.”
“Not yet, you haven’t,” he said cryptically.
“Dominique.” A voice as thick as syrup rumbled through the hall. I noticed the way he greeted the other man as if he knew him well. Dominique turned on his heel. When he turned, my stomach turned as well. I groaned, cursing my fragile body.
“Dante,” Dominique said.
“A bath has been prepared for her, at the Queen’s request.”
Dante wore a black tunic that looked a little outdated for our age. I frowned, thinking on it. In fact, neither of them appeared to be Victorian gentlemen. A lock of hair fell over the side of Dante’s face, obscuring it from view.
Dominique nodded and started following him.
“I have legs,” I protested. “I can walk.”
“I’ll not have you cracking your skull for the sake of your pride, piccolo,” Dominique said.
“Who gives a wounded animal a bath before they put it out of its misery?” I asked.
Out of the corner of my vision, I saw Dante glance back at us.
“How am I to die, then?” I continued rambling. “In much the same manner as those two girls the both of you dragged from the cell, I imagine.”
“Has she been babbling the whole time?” Dante asked.
“She’s feverish,” Dominique said, moving toward him. “Untie her hands.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” Dante asked.
“She is sick. She does not care.”
I felt his fingers plucking at the knot, tugging it free.
Once I could move my arms, the pain in my shoulder blades multiplied. Dominique steadied his arm around me, holding me out from his body enough to draw the cloak off his back.
“Here,” he said draping it over me and settling me back in against his chest.
“Thank you,” I murmured closing my eyes against the dull throb in my head.
I felt his legs working as he walked. I was focusing on the rhythm of his steps when the exhaustion pulled me under.
“Epiphany,” a woman’s voice spoke my name.
I tried to think past the cloudiness in my head.
Candle flame sent a dancing light throughout the room. A sea of black velvet stretched above me. My head finally made sense of what I saw, a black canopy. I sat up with my heart pounding in my ears.
A hand touched my shoulder, guiding me back to the mound of pillows. “You are in no immediate danger,” she said.
I thought it had all been a strange fever dream. I met her striking and binary colored eyes.
“Where am I?”
“In my bedchamber,” she answered, propping her elbow on the pillows beside me and resting her jaw on her hand.
“May I ask why?”
“You fell asleep,” she said. “Dominique, my guard, brought you here.”
“For how long?” I asked. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her brows were dark against her pale skin, dark and arching. Her lips were fleshy and sensuous, made for kissing and tracing with fingertips.
The thought sent my nerves to tingling.
“You slept for a few hours,” she said, calmly watching me.
I covered my mouth with the back of my hand and sat up, coughing against the tickle in my lungs.
I groaned as the tickle turned into that damned bruising pain. When I drew my hand away, there was blood on my skin.
I tried to take another deep breath and winced.
“Epiphany,” she said. I took the kerchief she offered.
“Why are you being kind to me?” I asked.
She shrugged as much as her position would allow. “Why not?”
“I watched a man beg you for his life and you treated him as if he did not matter.” I set about wiping the blood off my hand. “Yet, here I sit, not begging for my life, and you show me compassion. Why?”
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Twenty-four years of age,” I said. “Why?”
“You are young,” she said, reaching out and brushing a damp lock of hair out of my face. “Too young, I think, to feel death’s touch so soon.” Her fingers brushed the curve of my ear. A strange feeling fluttered at the bottom of my stomach. “Sleep,” she said. “We will speak more after you have rested.”
I closed my eyes. “You have not told me your name.”
“Renata.” Her breath tickled my lips and I looked up. She smiled, inches from my face, holding the length of her body above mine.
“Renata,” I whispered, “you do realize that my body is being taken by the consumption?”
The low laugh she gave was like silk and velvet. Her eyes sparkled. “Ah well,” she said in a silky tone, “you’ve not yet been consumed.”
Before I could speak, her hand slipped to the back of my neck. She pressed that sensuous mouth against mine.
I had been kissed before, when I was much younger. I had been kissed by a girl before too. When I was a child, my friend Abbey and I had been playing blind man’s bluff in the parlor of my father’s estate. I’d gotten exceptionally good at catching her whilst wearing a blindfold. Abbey had a bad habit of giggling. Once, when we were nine, I caught her and she caught my face in her hands and kissed me, slipping her wriggling tongue inside my mouth.
Thankfully, none of my father’s house ladies were in proximity of the parlor, or both Abbey and I would’ve endured a thorough scolding.
This was so very different. Her lips parted against mine. Unthinkingly compliant, I opened to her. My hands trembled slightly at her shoulders.
Her tongue slipped past my lips, spilling slowly into my mouth.
It was nothing like the way Abbey had kissed me.
Renata kissed me as if she meant to drink my soul from my body. If I had any thoughts, her mouth erased them. I found myself returning the kiss, as if it were natural, as if I’d done it more than once. I felt the tips of her canine teeth gliding across my tongue and paid no heed of them.
Her kiss superimposed the tide of pain, masking it with pleasure.
When she broke it, I was panting, mind boggled. My body no longer felt real.
She licked her lips and smiled, revealing small, pointy canines.
“What are you?” I breathed.
“Your salvation, if you agree. I’ll return on the morrow’s eve.”
“Agree to what?” I asked, but she had disappeared, leaving me with a fierce ache that burned between my legs.
In time, I slept.
True to her word, she returned the following evening wearing a gown of black velvet that laced between her breasts. Long sleeves trailed from her wrists, offering glimpses of blue taffeta nearly identical to the midnight blue in her eyes. Again, I was reminded that she seemed not to embrace the modern and ridiculous fashion of crinoline and corsets.
“If you are a queen,” I said, watching her light several candles around the room, “where is your crown?”
“I’ve no need of a crown,” she said idly.
“That’s a rather odd thing for a queen to say.”
She sat on the edge of the bed. “Power rests within,” she said, “not atop one’s head.”
“You are not like the others who are afraid to come near and catch my disease.”
“I am not like the others who can catch your disease,” she said in a manner of matter-of-fact tone.
“How is that?” I asked.
She stood, changing the subject. “Do you feel well enough to bathe?”
I remembered Dominique’s words. If she has chosen you. A part of me wanted to question her until she relented, but a greater part of me knew intuitively she would not relent until she chose to do so.
A bath was drawn and an attendant summoned. The attendant was a girl that appeared to be some two or three years younger than I was. She was gentle and quiet, with hair the color of dark honey. She kept her triangular face lowered while helping me into the tub. The water was warm and the waves of steam felt terribly good to my aching lungs.
I placed a hand on the edge of the tub, sitting upright while she poured rosewater in my hair and attempted to scour my unruly curls with some vigor.
She rubbed oil into my skin, and although it smelled better than lye, it was unfamiliar and I recognized only the mild smell of mint.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It will help you breathe,” she said and I recognized the French accent to her words.
It cleared my nasal passages but set my throat to itching. Once the oil was washed from my skin, I felt cleaner and more alert than I had in a long while. I toweled off with a bath sheet while the girl procured clean garb, holding open a white flax-linen chemise that she slipped over my head. The nightgown was in pitiful condition, soiled with sweat and dirt. In the low candlelight, my skin was visible beneath the white folds of the chemise.
“It does not leave much to the imagination, does it?” I asked, looking at her.
Her eyes flicked briefly to mine before she moved behind me, using the bath sheet to wring the excess water out of my hair.
“It fits well enough,” she said.
True, it did fit.
“What is your name?” I asked.
The weight of damp hair fell against my back.
“Why am I here?”
There was a long pause filled with silence. Finally, she said, “That is not for me to say.”
I emerged from the bath to find the room beyond warm and heated by a brazier. Renata sat on the edge of the bed, gazing off into the distance. When I entered, she turned her head slowly to look at me.
That one look made me stop.
“You wish to know why you are here,” she said, rising. She stopped in front of me, close enough that I had to tilt my head back to look up at her. She was a good head taller than I. “If you were offered a second chance at life, would you take it?”
It was a strange question, and I did not comprehend why she asked it. I only knew by her visage and the tone of her voice that she was not jesting.
“There is no cure for what ails me, lady.”
“Ah,” she said, lips curving, “but there is.”
One moment I was gazing into the blue fragments of her eyes. The next I was falling into them, drowning in waves that crashed in my mind and thrummed against my skin.
Ensorcelled by her, rationality left me. A carnal hunger sang through my veins, kindling a fire between my legs.
I knew the kind of aching fervor that had nothing to do with illness and everything to do with want and need and the dire urgency to feel her bare skin against mine.
I pressed myself against her, molding the lines of our bodies. Her lips found mine, parting. Our tongues touched and I fed at her mouth. Her hands branded my skin, resting at the base of my spine. A flood of strange longing spilled from betwixt my legs, dampening my thighs.
She drew away, breaking the kiss, breaking her spell.
I cried out, falling to my knees on the rough floor.
A great void nipped at the edges of my being.
I was crying and shaking and did not know why.
“Epiphany,” she said, her voice rendering a spark in the void. I raised my chin to look at her.
“Do you begin to understand?” she asked.
“What are you?” The question spilled from my mouth in a breath.
Her eyes glistened with amusement. “I am the one mortals pray their Gods will keep them safe from.”
Her words made me think past the void. “And when they pray, whose side are you on?”
She smiled. “Neither.”
“There are stories,” I said, “stories of demon-women who crawl into one’s bed at night.”
“Shall I crawl into your bed, Epiphany?” She closed the distance between us, touching my hair. “Would you have me climb atop your body and show you pleasure such as you have never known, such as no mortal lover can give you?” I turned my face into her hand, unable to resist the call of her skin. She traced my bottom lip with her thumb.
“What have you done to me?”
“This.” She trailed her hand down my throat, causing my eyelashes to flutter. I leaned my head back, arching into her touch. Her hand continued its steady descent, sweeping across my breast. My nipples stiffened like tiny dart tips against the chemise. “This is your own doing. I no longer hold you in thrall, and yet”—she caught my nipple between her fingers, sending a shock of pleasure and shame through me—“you sway at my touch.”
She jerked the chemise out from under my knees, raising it. Her fingers traced the dampness at my thighs, and without thinking, I opened to her.
Those fingers slid across the lips between my legs and I gasped.
“You are a virgin, no?”
Whatever she was, it did not matter. She parted me, brushing those fingers against the source of pleasure between my legs. Her fingers circled me, sweet and slow, summoning waves of honey and ecstasy from my withering body.
I cried, albeit silently, joy and sorrow spilling down my cheeks. “Yes.”
She drew her hand away and the void returned, threatening to crush my heart.
“Epiphany,” she said, lightly touching my shoulders and coaxing me to her, “come here.”
I went as she pulled me into her lap, arms encircling me. She stood and I wrapped my legs around her waist, feeling the fall of her silken hair against my face.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, knowing full well we were moving toward the bed.
Her reply, when it came, was a whisper. “Making you mine.”
God help me, I wanted her to.
America, Present Day
The air hit my lungs like inhaled fire. No amount of practice or centuries of experience could stop this. It felt like I was dying, but I wasn’t. I was waking. Although my body protested, I knew in my mind that I couldn’t die.
I was already dead.
I tried to think past what felt like a blowtorch being held against the inside of my chest.
It was always like this at first.
Then, the hunger, that damned gut-wrenching hunger hit like a fist. I doubled over as it sang through my veins like barbed wire. My hands clawed unwittingly at the silken sheets.
Death, it was always death, baying at my heels like some ghostly hound.
The intensity of the pain was mind numbing.
A voice called from deep within my chamber, “Good evening, Epiphany.”
I turned toward the voice, gazing at the black and leather clad figure that stood stoically at the end of my bed. Vasco often dressed like he was about to attend one of those human BDSM play parties. His long hair was braided neatly in what must’ve been a hundred little serpentine braids. There were threads of silver tinsel twined intricately throughout each braid. I knew that if there had been any light in the room it would’ve reflected off each thread, making him look like some gothic fallen angel with a twisted halo.
“Vasco,” I said, voice strained as I waited for the pain to neutralize. “What are you doing in my room?”
He spread his arms out fluidly, like some bird of prey ready to take its flight. “Our Mistress calls and I obey.”
“Put the chivalry back in its little lace box.” If I had been human, my breath would’ve steadied as the pain began to mellow. As it was, my head was clearing.
I got out of the large four-poster bed. The silk sheets and silk gown I wore helped give my body an added graceful slide.
Vasco strode to the corner of the room. His knee-high boots were silent against the carpeted floor. A light sprang to life between his fingers as he lit the only oil lamp. I preferred the dark but didn’t complain. The mirror behind it sent a flickering flame dancing throughout the entirety of the room. The pain in the center of my body had subsided, but not by much. Instead of the sharp pain it had been, it was now becoming a dull and persistent ache.
I watched as he leaned his tall frame against the wall, crossing his legs at the ankles. He was waiting for me.
“Vasco…” I let the suspicion cloud my tone. “What’s going on?”
“Tonight is the night, colombina.”
I gave him a sullen look.
“Are you ever going to stop calling me that?” I asked. “A dove I am not.”
His lips broke into a wide grin. The grin was wide enough to show the elongated canines curtained behind his lips. Vasco was probably the least dangerous of the Elders, at least toward me. He was also the most androgynous Elder in our clan. In the years that I had been with them, I had heard but a few that were brave enough to call him childish names behind his back. In all honesty, I think most of the male Elders envied him, for Vasco was comfortable with not only his femininity, but with his sexuality.
“You’re a dove of peace to my soul, colombina. You need to ready yourself,” he told me.
“I’ll dress once you tell me what’s going on.”
He sighed and let his arms fall down to the sides of his body.
“How she forgets this night is coming is a mystery to me,” he said talking to the ceiling.
“What night?” I was about ready to throw one of the pillows at him if he didn’t start talking. Why some of the other vampires made it a habit to be so vague all the time I’d never understand.
His azure gaze held mine. “Your challenge, Epiphany, your test.”
“Oh. After two hundred years the mind forgets,” I murmured kneading my temples with the tips of my fingers.
“Ah,” he said, “but you knew this night would arrive.”
“Did you tell her that I have no desire to become an Elder?”
His shoulders rose in a shrug. “Unfortunately for you, colombina, it does not matter what you desire or do not desire. Our Queen has given you the gift of immortality. Thus, you are obliged to stand amongst her ranks.”
“As a henchman,” I said, “and only that if I pass her tests. She will not allow us to strike out on our own.”
He pushed off the wall, quick in the way that vampires are quick. One minute they’re there, the next they’re not. I took a subconscious step back.
I hated it when he did that, when he used his speed against me. It was always a reminder. Granted, it was a very subtle reminder that there were others that were stronger and faster than me. I knew why he did it. I knew that Vasco put me in my place for a reason. It wasn’t cruelty. It wasn’t necessarily even a power play. He never told me why. He didn’t have to tell me. I just knew.