Authors: Colleen Gleason
The Rest Falls Away
Â© 2007, 2014 Colleen Gleason
All rights reserved.
Ebook ISBN: 9781931419512
Print ISBN: 9781931419567
This book was previously published by The Penguin Group.
Cover design: Damon Za
Ebook formatting: Typesetter
With love to Steve (here it is!), Holli and Tammy
“I think there is a choice possible to us at any moment, as long as we live.
But there is no sacrifice. There is a choice,
and the rest falls away.”
+ Prologue +
In Which Our Story Commences
His footsteps were soundless
, but Victoria felt him moving.
She grasped the bark of the oak, pressing her body into the tree as if it could suck her into safety. But all she felt was unyielding roughness. She couldn't stay here.
Crouching, curling her fingers around a heavy stick, she eased from the safe shadow of the tree and into the liquid silver of moonlight. The sharp snap of a twig beneath her boot sent her bolting on now-silent feet into another nearby shadowâ¦.
She could hear him breathing.
And feel the reverberations of his heartbeat.
It thumped loud, steady, strong, pumping into her ears, pulsing through her body as if it were her own organ.
Victoria moved again, her skirts flapping around her ankles as she dashed from the sound of her pursuer. She tore through the underbrush, dodging from tree to tree and leaping over fallen logs as though she were a mare given her head.
His solid footfalls came closer and faster as she ran.
A branch tore at her face. Brush snagged her skirts.
She ran and ran and ran in the white moonlight, clutching her stick, and still he came, his heartbeat as steady as his tramping feet.
Hardly before she realized it, Victoria stumbled down a small incline and splashed into a creek. The prop of the stick kept her from falling as she slogged through the thigh-high water, her skirts becoming leaden, weighing her down, slowing her until she could barely take another step.
A cry of rage from behind tore her attention as she staggered up the small incline on the other side of the creek.
As she climbed out, she turned and saw him standing there on the opposite bank. She couldn't see his faceâ¦but his eyes gleamed in the dark, and fury and frustration emanated from his body. But he did not follow her.
He did not cross the running water.
+ + +
Victoria jolted awake, her heart thrumming madly in her chest.
Sunlight, not moonbeams, blazed through the window.
A dream. It had been a dream.
She smoothed a hand over her face, damp with perspiration, and brushed away the tendrils of hair that had escaped her thick braid.
The fifth dream. It was time.
Her bed was high off the floor, and her feet thumped onto the Aubusson rug as she launched herself from under the coverlet, in desperate need of the chamber pot. Heedless of immodesty, Victoria pulled her sweat-soaked chemise up and over her body and felt the relief of cool air on her clammy skin.
Five dreams in less than a fortnight. That was the sign. She would go to Aunt Eustacia today.
The remnants of the dream dissolved, replaced by a hum of anticipation and a tingle of apprehension. Victoria looked at herself in the tall, cloudy mirror. The warning had come.
Today she would learn just what that warning portended.
+ 1 +
Miss Victoria Grantworth's Two Debuts
The Gardellas were vampire hunters.
Victoria was going to hunt vampires.
“Victoria, dearâ¦” Lady Melisande's gentle voice held the barest hint of reproach. “You may commence with pouring.”
Victoria blinked and realized her mother had been sitting with her hands folded perfectly in her lap, whilst their two guests waited with empty teacups. “Of course, Mother. I apologize for my woolgathering,” she added as she raised the ivory teapot. Her mother's favorite vessel, brought from Italy by
mother when she wed Herbert, Lord of Prewitt Shore, was painted with images of Roman cathedrals.
Fortunately, the two guests at hand were Lady Melly's oldest and dearest friends, and they would not be offended by her daughter's lack of attention.
Three weeks ago, Victoria's biggest concern had been which gown to wear to an evening's event. Or whetherâheaven forbid!âher dance card might not fill up.
Or even whether she would land a suitable husband during her first season “out” in Society.
But nowâ¦how on earth was she going hide a wooden stake on her person? One couldn't just slip it into one's glove! Or down one's bodice!
“Not to worry, my dear Melly. I'm sure the girl is just a bit distracted, with her coming-out in less than a fortnight.” Lady Petronilla Fenworth smiled gently at Victoria as she retrieved her steaming cup. Of the three matrons, she bore the sweetest disposition; one that matched her delicate, angelic face and tiny frame. She reminded Victoria of a china doll. “After waiting in mourning for these past two years, surely she is beside herself that she is to debut at last!”
“Indeed, I daresay you are correct,” replied Victoria's mother, the celebrated beauty of the trio. “I have great hopes for her on the mart, for though she is two years older than most of the others, she is certainly beautiful enough to catch the eye of a marquessâ¦or even perhaps a duke!” She looked fondly at her eldest daughter, who had replaced the teapot and now tried to appear interested in the ensuing conversationâwhich was being carried on as if she wasn't even present.
Lady Winifred, who was the other of Melisande's lifelong friends, leaned forward to select a biscuit with plump fingers. She looked up, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “My sister by marriage tells me that Rockley will be seeking a wife this year at last!”
“Rockley!” The other two elder women repeated the name in unison, their tones bordering on a squeal, as if they were the eligible misses instead of Victoria. Since both ladies had been married for nigh on a quarter century (at least until Melisande had been widowed a year earlier), it was quite unnecessary and ratherâ¦earsplitting.
“Victoria, did you hear what Winifred said?” Lady Melisande grasped her daughter's hand. “The Marquess of Rockley is seeking a bride! We must ensure he is invited to your coming-out. Winnie, will your sister by marriage be attending?”
“I shall see to itâand that she insist her husband bring Rockley. Nothing would please me more than to see our dear Victoria steal the heartâand purseâof the elusive Marquess of Rockley.” Winifred, who had been widowed a decade earlier and was childless, had fairly adopted Victoria as her own. Between Petronilla, Winifred, and, of course, Melisande, Victoria had three full-time mothers worrying about her marriage prospects.
She was more worried about whether the small crucifix she sometimes wore about her neck would be enough to deter a salacious vampire.
According to Aunt Eustacia, it would; but as Victoria had yet to come face-to-face with one of the creatures, she wasn't completely convinced. In fact, that had become her biggest source of distraction in the last daysâwhen would she see her first vampire?
Would one simply leap out of the woodwork one evening? Or would she have some kind of warning?
A sharp rapping on the parlor door drew the tittering ladies' attention from discussions of Rockley's physique and his income. “Yes, Jimmons?” asked Melisande when the butler peered into the room.
“I am in receipt of a summons for Miss Victoria to Lady Eustacia Gardella's home. Her ladyship's carriage awaits the young miss, if she agrees to attend her aunt.”
Victoria set down her teacup with a sharp clatter. More training! And a chance to ask more questions of her aunt.
“Mother,” she said as she rose rather more abruptly than she'd intended. The table rattled alarmingly.
The last thing she wished to hear was a lecture regarding the smooth, graceful movements a lady must adopt.
Especially since Aunt Eustacia's assistant, a fascinating man named Kritanu, had spent the last two weeks teaching her to move with quick, precise actions. And how to fell a man with the perfect kick. How to take an attacker by surprise by dodging and leaping in a most unladylike manner. Her mother would expire on the spot if she had seen the way Victoria had learned to strike with her arms, legs, and even her head. “I would be pleased to attend Aunt Eustacia, if you will excuse me.”
Lady Melly looked up at her, her round face a version of Victoria's own narrower, more elegant one. “You have grown quite attached to my aunt in these last weeks, my dear. I am sure it gives the elderly lady great pleasure to have your company. I do hope she does not feel slighted when the Season begins and you are dancing at balls or attending the theater every night.”
Dancing at balls, attending the theater, stalking vampires.
Without a doubt, Victoria was going to be an extraordinarily busy debutante.
+ + +
At last, the night of Victoria's debut arrived. The event should have occurred more than two years ago when she turned seventeen, but had been delayed. First by the death of her grandfather, and then by the death of her father.
But tonight, having long given up her mourning clothing, Victoria sat at her dressing table looking every inch the proper young miss.
Her ink-black hair, a mass of wild curls, had been piled high at the back of her head and pinned to within an inch of its life. It would not dare shift or sag, regardless of the alacrity with which its mistress might dance, curtsy, or otherwise hare about.
Jet beads and the palest of pink pearls had been woven into her curls, and the black beads shone and sparkled when she turned her head, whilst the pearls glowed with the same pale hue of her gown. Matching gems hung from her ears, and a rose-colored necklace of pearls and quartz encircled her neck. Dangling from the front was, instead of a cameo brooch, a small silver crucifix.
Victoria's gown bore the faintest tinge of pink, and fell in diaphanous pleats from under her bosom to the tips of her shoes. The skirt was flowing and very nearly sheer; underneath she wore two more layers of translucent ivory. The dress's low, square dÃ©colletage left a rather large expanse of creamy white skin exposed, from choker necklace to the very tops of her breasts. And her gloves, long and virginal white, went past her elbows, nearly touching the tiny puffed sleeves of her gown.
Indeed, Victoria appeared every bit the demure, ingenuous debutante that she wasâ¦except for the solid wooden stake she held in her hand.
It was the circumference of two of her fingers and nearly the length of her arm from wrist to elbow. One end was sanded smooth, and the other whittled to a needle-sharp point. It was too thick to weave into her coiffure, much too long to fit in the small bag that dangled from her wrist.