“My lady, your mother is wearin’ a hole in the floor,” Verbena said as she twisted a final curl into place at the top of her mistress’s coiffure. “She claims y’ll be late for the masquerade ball if y’ don’t hurry. And something about the Marquess o’ Rockley attendin’ and wantin’ to see ye?”
Miss Victoria Gardella Grantworth looked in the mirror, eyeing her maid’s creation in the form of a tall—very tall—coiffure. Her dark hair had been piled to an impossible height, and then powdered so that her black curls looked more gray than white. A small bluebird perched at the side of her column of hair, and a bejeweled comb rested at the top. Pink and yellow flowers and a variety of jewels further decorated the powdered curls.
“I don’t know that Marie Antoinette’s hair was ever this particular hue,” Victoria said, “but I think it looks lovely. And perhaps I’d best go down before Mother comes up to drag me off.”
She stood, and the skirts of her gown rose with her as if they had a life of their own. Victoria was used to wearing the high-waisted, clinging skirts of contemporary styles, but these wide panniers and heavy brocaded layers of fabric at least left her legs free to move beneath without getting too caught up in the skirts. The only other benefit of the yards of material dripping from her body was that there were plenty of places to slip a wooden stake into or between ruffles, lace, or gathers. She felt for the one that rested just to the right side of her torso, cunningly hidden behind a pouf of lace.
“I do hope there aren’t any vampires at Lady Petronilla’s ball tonight,” Victoria said, drawing on her gloves. “It will be impossible to fight them in this costume.”
“But m’lady, if there are, you’ll be very prepared,” Verbena told her, a sparkle in her blue eyes. “I’ve slipped one o’ your littler stakes here in the back of your hair.” She poked at the heavy mass near the back of Victoria’s crown. “Just in case.”
“If I pull it out, likely it will all come falling down,” Victoria replied, gingerly feeling for the stake. “But in a pinch, I suppose it shall do. I only hope I’ll not have need of it. I have been looking forward to one night where I don’t have to make some excuse to sneak out and stake a vampire.”
Verbena handed her mistress a small reticule. “Holy water, an’ a cross in here, my lady,” she told her. “An’ you look lovely.”
Victoria might look like any normal young woman, just debuting into Society, but beneath her gown—whether it be a fashionable high-waisted one, or the retrospective costume she currently wore—she harbored a secret that made her very different from any other girl.
She wore the vis bulla, a tiny silver cross amulet that gave her superhuman strength, speed, and healing capability. Victoria Gardella Grantworth was a Venator, a vampire hunter descended from a long line of slayers in the Gardella family. Her duty, beyond that of her unsuspecting mother’s expectation that she marry well, was to hunt the undead who lurked in the shadows of London Society. And everywhere else in the world.
Victoria wasn’t the only Venator in the world. Her great-aunt Eustacia had been a powerful Venator before she became too old to hunt, and then there was Max Pesaro, another Venator who spent more time disparaging Victoria’s hunting skills than anything else. He, too, was a vampire hunter, though not descended from the Gardella line.
Victoria was rather glad that she would be attending the masquerade ball at Lady Petronilla’s tonight, for Max disdained social functions and would not be there to glower at her and make snide comments about how many men had signed her dance card.
And then of course, there was Phillip.
Thinking of the Marquess of Rockley put a great smile on her face, so that when Victoria reached the bottom of the stairs and her mother saw her, she looked particularly radiant.
“Well, now,” Lady Melly twittered. She was a handsome woman herself, and had chosen to dress in Greek fashion as Circe. Having been widowed more than two years earlier from a man she’d cared for, but never truly loved, she had just recently re-entered Society with a vengeance. “You do look lovely, Victoria, dear, and it is certain that Rockley will be enchanted. That tiny little black patch on your cheek is just the most delightful touch…although I do rather think you could do without that little wooden thing sticking out of the back of your coiffure. I vow, sometimes I wonder whatever your maid is thinking when she dresses your hair.”
Victoria smoothly moved out of the way when her mother reached to touch the stake secreted in her curls. “I like it, Mother. And should we not be leaving? I’m not certain how long it will take me to find Rockley, as we’ll all be masked.”
“Oh, I have no fear on that,” Lady Melly said, ushering her daughter quite unnecessarily out the front door. The carriage was waiting, a footman standing with the door open and the groom holding the horses. “He shall be dressed as that infamous Robin Hood, and I’ve made certain that he’ll know who the mysterious Marie Antoinette is.”
Victoria didn’t bother to ask how her mother found out how Phillip—as he’d asked her to call him—would be costumed, nor how she would inform him of her daughter’s guise. It didn’t matter one whit. She merely allowed her mother to muse delightfully over her machinations to have her only daughter marry a wealthy marquess.
Not that Victoria minded, for Phillip was handsome, charming, and seemed to be as besotted with her as Victoria felt toward him. He’d been seeking her out at every social event they’d both attended since her debut…and had even kissed her once while driving her through the park. That was when he insisted that she call him by his given name, despite the fact that they weren’t married, or even betrothed.
When they arrived at Lady Petronilla’s home, Victoria had to succumb to her mother’s last-minute fussing before she could emerge awkwardly from the carriage. Really, those skirts were more than a bit much, and she nearly lost her balance due to their weight and the fact that her heel caught in a hem.
She reallyhoped there would be no vampires here tonight.
Inside the ball, Victoria and her mother made their way from the grand foyer into the ballroom. The butler introduced them only as “Her Majesty Marie Antoinette, and Circe,” since they were masked and would remain that way until midnight.
In spite of wishing to appear aloof, Victoria found herself looking for Robin Hood. From the way her mother had wrapped her talon-like fingers around her arm, she knew Lady Melly wouldn’t let her slip into the crowds until they found him.
But then a generously-sized Aphrodite bore down upon them, her gown flowing behind her like a great pink sail. Lady Melly released Victoria’s arm and greeted one of her two bosom friends, the Duchess of Farnham.
“I daresay, Victoria, you look absolutely lovely,” crowed the duchess, who wore a heavy necklace of garnets and a light dusting of crumbs. “Or shall I say, Your Majesty? Perhaps you ought to adjust your mask a bit,” she added.
“Yes indeed,” Lady Melly said, pulling urgently on the covering, unaware that a sharp edge was scraping across her daughter’s nose. “It would be a shame if Bretlington or Werthington-Lyce recognized you before Rockley, for I don’t know how you should get out of dancing with them.”
In that, Victoria could not help but agree, for the former had exceedingly putrid breath that accompanied non-stop raptures over his bloodhounds, and the latter spoke nary a word at all but spent his time leering down the bodice of her gown and treading upon her toes.
But at that moment, her mother’s manipulations came to fruition. Victoria felt the presence of Phillip behind her before he even spoke…perhaps it was the smell of the lemon-rosemary pomade he favored, or perhaps it was merely that prickle of awareness, of attraction, that hummed between them. At any rate, she turned slowly—so as not to appear too eager, yet delighted to see him—and immediately found his gaze behind the black mask.
His dark eyes were hooded by heavy lids that always gave him an appearance of deep contemplation, and yet underlying humor and sensuality. “That is quite a magnificent coiffure, your majesty,” he said, removing his soft, feathered hat as he bowed. “It’s a wonder that your slender neck can carry the weight, especially with all of those jewels and other ornaments therein.”
“Indeed, Sir Robin of the Hood,” she replied. “I hope that you haven’t any designs on relieving me of any of said jewels, under the guise of lightening the load for my poor little head.”
“Jewels? Nay, my fair queen,” Phillip said, his eyes glinting wickedly from behind the mask. “It is not jewels that I seek from you.”
Victoria could feel her mother’s barely suppressed delight at this exchange, even as her own cheeks warmed beneath the mask and her stomach gave a delicious flutter.
Phillip, savvy as he was, took that moment to break off their little sally and turn to bow at Circe and Aphrodite, both of whom had eyes shining with delight and fingers twittering silently with expectation. “Good evening, my ladies,” he said, again flourishing his cap. “How lovely you both look this eventide. I do hope you might forgive this outlaw if he claims the queen for a waltz—as she refuses to part with her jewels.”
“Oh, but of course,” replied Lady Melly, fairly shoving Victoria at Rockley.
Fortunately, Phillip had become familiar with Lady Melly’s enthusiasm due to past exchanges, and he caught Victoria’s arm before she—and her mass of skirts—stumbled over his boots. “Shall we?” he asked, cupping her fingers intimately around his warm, muscular arm.
As he drew her toward the dance floor, where a country dance had just ended, Victoria passed a golden-haired man dressed as a medieval lute player. Though he wore a mask the color of well-brewed tea, topaz eyes glittered through the holes…and caught Victoria’s gaze.
A little shiver tingled over the back of her shoulders and she felt a quick, funny twist in her middle. She knew him. The knowing heat in those eyes…the little lift at one side of that full mouth.
What on earth was Sebastian Vioget doing here?
This time, Victoria did stumble over her blastedly heavy skirt as Phillip drew her into a smooth embrace, very correct, with the proper amount of space between them…and launched them into the three-count step.
Even as she was fully aware of the imprint of Phillip’s hand at the back of her waist, and the comforting feel of his fingers around hers, Victoria couldn’t keep her attention from following the masked lute player. He was dressed in an emerald shirt with a gold tunic over it, making it easy to follow the shine of his garb as he moved smoothly through the clusters of people.
The last time she’d seen Sebastian Vioget had been at The Silver Chalice, a pub that he owned and operated in the unpleasant, dangerous neighborhood of St. Giles. His clientele consisted mainly of vampires, although a few brave—or unwitting—humans also patronized the place.
Somehow, Sebastian had recognized the fact that Victoria was a Venator, and he’d made his fascination clear. And there had been that moment in his private office….
“My dear, you seem rather quiet tonight,” Phillip said, breaking into her thoughts. “I do hope that my appearance didn’t set you off any plans you might have had to add to your dance card…though I must confess, I would have battled my way through any of your admirers to claim my waltz tonight. Or, dare I hope…waltz es?”
Victoria smiled up at him, but felt a twinge of guilt. She’d had to forestall or interrupt their dances more than once, when duty called for her to locate and stake a vampire. “Waltzes? I would be most delighted to grant you those, in the plural…insofar as I can trust you won’t try to relieve me of my jeweled hairpieces. Such stories I’ve heard about you, Sir Robin Hood, and your quick fingers.”
His eyes glinted appreciatively. “As I have been so bold as to proclaim, your majesty, it isn’t your jewels that I hope to obtain.”
“Something more valuable?” she asked, suddenly forgetting about Sebastian Vioget, and vampires, and anything other than the man looking down at her.
“Something eminently more valuable…and enjoyable.”
It was at that exceedingly inopportune moment that Victoria felt a telltale chill over the back of her neck. As she was well aware, that cold prickle wasn’t due to any sudden draft or change in temperature…it was her Venator sense telling her that a vampire was in the vicinity.
Ignoring the sensation for the moment, Victoria looked demurely away from Phillip’s warm gaze. He’d already kissed her once, and he’d made it quite clear he intended to do so again.
“Is that so?” she replied, automatically moistening her lips before she realized how closely he was watching her. The warmth bloomed in her cheeks again and she felt a rise in her heartrate. Odd, how she felt little fear or consternation in facing a demonic undead…but when confronted with a mere man who was besotted with her, she felt more than a bit out of her element.
“I daresay you must be quite warm in that heavy gown,” Phillip said, tightening his arm around her waist. “Perhaps a turn on the patio would be in order? I believe the moon is quite lovely.”
She wanted nothing more than that…except perhaps something a bit more private where they might share another kiss. But duty had reared its ugly head, and Victoria couldn’t ignore the chill of an undead. Nor could she waste any more time for fear the vampire would have the chance to woo his or her victim away.
“I should love to see Lady Petronilla’s gardens, for they are always quite lovely in June. But when I tripped earlier, one of my flounces tore. I might visit the retiring room first, to see if it can be repaired.”
Disappointment clouded his eyes for a moment, but Victoria continued with a gentle smile, “It shall be quite dark in the gardens, and I don’t wish to cause any further damage to the flounce before it is repaired.”
At the mention of the dark garden, and her accompanying smile that told him she fully intended to take advantage of it, Phillip relaxed a bit. “Perhaps you might be a bit thirsty? I shall find some lemonade while you have your gown repaired.”
Victoria smiled with delight. At their very first meeting, Phillip had brought her a cup of lemonade when he learned that her dance card had filled up before he could claim a second turn, and it had become sort of a jest between them. “Indeed, I would greatly appreciate that.”