New Orleans, 1903
Night tightened its claws around the city, choking life and light to sullen, crouching terror. In the penetrating blackness, a cat screamed, a child wailed. A man, his face at once youthful and mature, as though in his prime and yet ancient, leaned his arm against a windowsill. Behind him, revelers chased away the dark in wild laughter. He ignored them all, staring as though his eyes could penetrate beyond the pool of yellow streetlights near the courtyard and into the invisible street beyond.
“I know you're out there,” he growled beneath his breath. “I know you're there. Stay where you are. Come no closer. We do not need to do this.”
The night offered no reply, not that he had expected one.
“Philippe,” a woman breathed, her exhalation hot on his ear as her fingers closed around his arm.
He whirled to face his hostess. “Camille.” His pounding heart slowed at the sight of her familiar face, her dark hair piled loosely into a careless knot on the back of her head, and her scarlet gown clinging scandalously low on her ample breasts.
“Philippe, my love, why are you looking out into that gloomy courtyard,” she demanded in English, delicately accented with her native French, “when all the beautiful flowers of Louisiana bloom just over your shoulder?”
Philippe spared a glance at the painted prostitutes. Though he found them lovely, their allure could not fully distract him from the knowledge that somewhere beyond the torches' light, a creature hunted him. But not yet, Lord, he begged silently. I'm so tired. So tired of all this. “I'm sorry to be a bad guest, Camille,” he said with all due humility.
“Silly.” She waved her hand, accepting the apology while pretending to dismiss it. “Don't worry for me, but I fear Geneviève would be heartbroken if you did not visit her. She has a new dress she wants to show you.” She extended a bare arm from which a mere scrap of a sleeve dangled, its scarlet hue drawing his eye to the enticing fullness of her pale bosom.
Philippe took the offer, laying his hand on her elbow and allowing her to lead him back into the crowded parlor. There, ladies fanned themselves against the sultry evening, black lace fluttering over faces ranging in hues from cream to coffee.
Philippe adored them all. A woman's beauty never escaped him, whether white, black or some mixture thereof. He scanned each face, recalling an evening spent with one, an hour with another, and felt for each a surge of affection. Then a rustle of taffeta drew his attention to the stairs. Clad in icy white, Geneviève descended, arm-in-arm with a portly gentleman, a false smile plastered on her full lips.
Philippe ran his gaze over her lovely face from her hair—brown and lushly curly, tendrils escaping their thick, ornate knot—to her broad high forehead, eyes too dark and nose too wide to provide evidence of the European ancestry she claimed. Their eyes locked, and she blushed.
“Thank you, my dear,” the portly gentleman wheezed, patting her hand. She turned, curved her lips at the fellow, and then dropped his arm and scampered away. She caught Philippe's eyes again with a teasing, sideways glance, and acted as though she meant to sneak past him.
“No, you don't, m'mselle,” Philippe growled, grabbing her arm.
“Why, sir!” her hand fluttered around her bosom. “Unhand me this minute.” She wrinkled her nose at him.
“Not without a kiss.” Philippe dropped the pseudo-aggressive tone and added, “I've missed you, Gen.”
She stilled, smile fading. Then she led him toward the door.
“Geneviève,” Camille barked.
“Never fear, my lady,” Philippe said, interceding, “I'll be buying her entire evening.”
A mercenary grin flashed across the madam's face, and she waved to the couple as they passed beyond the doorway into breathless darkness.
Geneviève stepped into Philippe's arms. He enfolded her. She lifted her face and he claimed her plump lips with hungry urgency. Geneviève clung to his neck and mouth. He curved one hand around the back of her neck and splayed the other along her spine.
“I'm still amazed you allow this,” he murmured.
She smiled against his lips. “You're special, Philippe.”
“Do you say that to everyone?” he asked, eyes probing hers. They never discussed her profession, but tonight he had to know.
Her eyebrows drew together, staring into him as though reading his intentions. Then she slowly twisted her head to one side and then the other. “This is special, at least to me. The others… they don't have anything to do with my heart, my feelings. I do my work, nothing more.”
“And me?” he demanded, hope flaring.
Her smile turned wistful. “You stopped being work to me long ago, Philippe.” Then she broke eye contact, gaze skirting away. “But for naught. I'm… I am what I am. What could a putain like me mean to someone like you?”
“To someone like me?” He chuckled without humor. “What do you imagine I am, Gen? Rich? Powerful? I am all those things and you're right. Someone like me should want an innocent virgin to keep his manor and bear his enfants.”
She swallowed hard. The working of her throat revealed her sorrow.
Philippe tucked a finger under her chin and lifted her face. “But, minette, I am not like those men. What I have seen… what I have endured…” he allowed the faintest scrap of his shame and rage to bleed into his expression.
Her eyes bulged. He waited for her to withdraw, but instead, she ran her fingers into his hair. Emboldened, he pressed on. “What have I to do with youth and innocence? I would frighten a young maiden out of her wits. Only one who has walked through the fire can match me. So, to answer your question, minette; to a man like me, you might only seem good for an evening, but as for myself…” he stroked the curve of her cheek. “You mean hope, and I have not hoped in so long.”
Geneviève laid her forehead against his lips, rubbing like the kitten he had named her. “What are you saying, Philippe?”
“I'm saying,” he began, tenderly stroking his fingers over her silky skin, “that I would like to take you away from this life. I'd rather you remain with me. Are you willing?”
“As your mistress?” Again, her gaze slid away from his, but not before he saw the conflicted thoughts she sought to conceal.
“Perhaps you could call it that,” he said, “but remember, the future contains many mysteries, and the world is large. I must be honest with you, minette. Being with me will not be easy for you. I am not what you think, and I am constantly in danger. If you agree, you will share that risk. We must always be on the run, never staying long in any place, never making connections because they might betray us. You would be trading one shadow life for another. I cannot offer you more.”
Geneviève caught her lip between her teeth. “You give me much to consider,” she admitted. “I do like the thought of having only one man, a man who says such nice, caring things to me, instead of a crew of clients who pat my head like a good dog.” She traced her hand down Philippe's back. He shivered as her fingers stimulated his skin. “What kind of trouble keeps a man of wealth and power on the run?”
She lifted her eyes to his, and he wondered what she saw in his face—in his too-black eyes that should have been blue, given the paleness of his skin. Can you see what I am? Can you understand at all, minette? How can I expect that you would? Half legend, half monster, I shouldn't exist, and yet I fight not only to survive, but to live, really live.
His heart hurt even as it surged with hope, knowing eventually he would lose her. Even if we make a perfect future together, it will someday come to an end. By staving off loneliness now, you're purchasing grief later. And yet, the heavy perfume of jasmine and magnolia rising from her hair, the baby softness of her tawny skin, the bright hope in her dark eyes lured him past sense and reason into a place that felt perilously like… love.
“I wish I could offer you more, minette. I wish I could buy you a plantation with a beautiful home and servants to attend to your every desire. I wish I could set you up as the belle of every ball. It cannot be. I can only offer you shadows, and danger… and every corner of my battered heart. Will you accept it, Geneviève?”
Her fingers fluttered over her mouth. “Do you mean that, Philippe?” she breathed, exhaling a scent of peppermint and exotic spices.
He leaned down and touched his lips to her forehead. “I do.” The word carried the weight of a vow, a vow he could never make, but was making nonetheless.
She met his eyes with steady certainty. “I will.”
Joy swelled Philippe's heart at her simple declaration. “Then come, my lady. Your home awaits.”
“Oh!” she blinked. “But what about Madame Camille? She will be angry if I disappear. She always says I can't leave, that none of us may, because we owe her money.” She lowered her eyes, skin coloring. “Because I'm… mixed, I owe her more than most.”
Did she think I didn't know? “My love, I do not believe one person may own another, and not long ago, this nation fought a war to prove it. Now, all people are free, save that one heart permits the other ownership. If it worries you, I can pay her… not to buy you, but to free you from any claim she might have.”
Geneviève studied his boots as she gave a curt nod. How humiliating it must be to think your very existence causes someone to claim ownership. Her African blood only makes her special.
To speak such thoughts aloud, even in private, invited trouble, and so he set out to prove to her how much he cared by lifting her chin and claiming her lips in a kiss of aching tenderness. It struck him how very sacred their conversation felt, as though their relationship, anathema to society and unsanctioned by the Church, carried the weight of a priest's blessing. “Come, love. I will settle accounts tomorrow with Camille. Tonight, we feast.”
Geneviève's expression lightened into one of radiant joy, so her dusky complexion glowed like topaz under the flickering streetlights.
Suddenly feeling exposed, Philippe turned partly away from his beloved's face and led her through the gate and out into the street.
Here, the darkness turned palpable and threatening—not the vague sense of foreboding he had experienced inside the whorehouse, but a more visceral danger that made him want to run for the river and board the first boat away… or charter one.
It seemed Philippe's tension translated itself to Geneviève. She crept closer to his body, wrapping his cloak around her overly revealing dress as though to hide herself from view. She seemed to tug at him, urging him to hurry, but with no clear understanding of where they headed.
“Come now, minette,” he urged, trying to lighten their flight with a jest, “you needn't rush so. There remains plenty of night for your ravishment.”
She laughed, her usual bell-like giggle, though he could hear that she didn't truly mean it. “Oh, and should I act like a blushing bride?” she teased back. “Should I hide under the bedclothes in my thickest nightgown?”
“Nay, my lady. The heat is too dense. You would melt away and I would be left to ravish a puddle.” He swept her around a gloomy corner. In the distance, the soft lapping of water over stone gave way to the mournful shriek of a paddle wheeler as it rocked in its moorings. Something small swooped down at them, barely visible in the moonlight. Geneviève dodged with a squeak as leathery wings flapped past her head.
“Something feels wrong tonight, Philippe,” she commented, her bravado faltering on every word.
“It does,” he agreed. “I fear the danger that stalks me must be drawing near. They always bring such a sense of dread. We will not be able to linger long in the city.”
“Will we leave soon, then?” she asked, a little breathlessly. “I've never been outside of New Orleans.”
“First thing in the morning,” he replied tersely. “I'm afraid Madame Camille will have to make do without payment. She's earned a fortune on your debasement. She's had enough.”
“I suppose,” Geneviève agreed, “but, oh, Philippe, I feel afraid. Afraid of Camille, the night, even the dark, and I'm a creature of darkness.”
He laughed, low and humorless. “Minette, you are pure sunshine, and have nothing in common with true creatures of darkness. I know.”
She drew to a halt in a beam of silvery moonlight. “Philippe, are you able to move about in the daytime?”
He froze, arrested by her sudden movement and unexpected words. “How do you know such things?” he demanded harshly.
“My grandmother,” Geneviève stated, meeting his eyes without fear. “Her ancestors came from Senegal, but before that, who knows? She never stated her origin, I don't know if she even knew it, but somewhere in that faraway land, they spoke a legend of creatures, neither alive nor dead, who rose from the earth to feed on the living and turn them also into shades. Are you such a creature, Philippe? Are you what my French father called… vampyr?”
“You are far smarter than you give yourself credit for,” he muttered, and then shook his head. “Non, minette, I am not a vampire, but you have truly named my enemy.”
Geneviève gulped, turning ashen as the realization of what she faced—what she had agreed to—dawned on her.
“Do you wish to return to the bordel?” he asked. “You are far safer there. Indeed, it was selfish of me to bring you away. Perhaps, in time, you could buy your freedom. Do I take you home, Geneviève?”
She considered for a long, silent moment. “Home, Philippe? Do you really think that place is my home? Non, mon amour. My only home… is you.”
A poignant blend of love and guilt swirled through Philippe. “As long as there is breath in my body, minette, as long as I live, I will give my life to protect yours.”
She nodded, accepting what feeble protection he could give. I pray you never know how feeble it truly is.
Again, the bat swooped over the couple, intent on its nightly feast of insects, and Geneviève flinched away from it. Unfrozen at last, Philippe moved his mistress forward, racing through the darkened streets to the door of his townhouse, a building in dark burgundy brick with a wrought-iron railing, around which ivy twined. Quickly turning the key in the lock did not prevent a thrill of nervous tension from creeping up Philippe's neck. He pulled Geneviève closer to his side. At last, the door consented to swing inward, and they ducked through, slamming it shut to keep dark things in the night.