The first chapter is notoriously difficult for me. I sort of stumble around, trying to figure out the characters and what the book wants to be. So, with all that said, I like Charlotte’s first scene. It’s funnier than I expected. And Draven is a touch more murdery than I anticipated.
This is an unedited alpha draft. Typos, etc.
“What are you doing?” Jase Parkell stood in the doorway of the library, his hat in his hand.
“Packing.” Charlotte held two books and debated which pile they belonged in. Several piles were scattered across the library’s floor. “While this looks chaotic, I assure you that I have a system.”
“I should hope so,” he said, sounding like he disbelieved her.
Honestly. Charlotte was an academic, albeit one in exile. Organizing her reading material should not have been so complicated.
“I will be gone for some time. I require entertainment. Lionel, for all his faults, had excellent tastes for a good story.” Lionel certainly told a good story, after all.
“Well, of course,” she said. His comment baffled her. “The vampire Draven might have a library but he will hardly have the latest books, fresh from shops in Founding. And I find nothing more frustrating than to open a book and find I do not like it for whatever reason. Can you imagine lugging a book all the way across the West Lands only to discover that I dislike the premise? Thus, I am sorting the collection. That stack is the books I already know I will enjoy.” She pointed to a short stack on a table. “Books that seem interesting but I am uncertain about. That stack is the Maybes. That one by the bookshelf is the No, Absolutely Nots.” She pointed to the largest stack. “See, it’s all quite rational.”
“It’s been a year since we’ve lost my uncle–“
Charlotte pulled down a green cloth covered set of books. There was no title on the spine. How intriguing. The book feels open to an illustrated page that depicts a couple enjoying themselves. Without clothing.
Oh. A blush burned hot on her cheeks.
She snapped the book shut and added it to the Definately pile.
“Good heavens! Why are you on the floor, Mr. Parkell?”
Jase knelt on one knee. Charlotte had a good idea what he was doing and it was dreadful.
“Miss Wodehouse, I would be honored if you would do me the honor…” He frowned at the repetition.
“Absolutely not. Get up this instant before someone sees you and thinks you’re proposing,” Charlotte said, tugging Jase to his feet.
“I am proposing.” He dug a ring out of his coat pocket.
“Don’t be silly.”
He held out the ring like he was offering a chunk of meat to a wild animal. The silver band shone in the lamplight and the blue stones twinkled. It was a lovely ring but nothing in his demeanor– he had his head turned and his eyes screwed shut, for crying out loud– said he wanted this.
That made two of them.
“Absolutely not,” Charlotte said, pushing his hand away. “Put that away.”
Jase breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness. Not that I find anything objectionable about you, Charlotte, but I don’t wish to marry you.”
Oh, she could think of a few objectionable qualities she possessed.
“Then what possessed you to propose?”
“It was Mother’s idea.”
That sounded exactly like Lattice Parkell, her late husband’s sister and current thorn on Charlotte’s side. Lattice had marched straight from her brother’s funeral to a solicitor’s office to gain control of Charlotte’s inheritance. They had spent much of the last year in courtrooms, dragging out all the dirty laundry. After the initial ruling that despite the brevity of Charlotte and Lionel’s union, no one could doubt the marriage was legitimate. The license had been signed and the ceremony witnessed by the entire village, after all. Then Lattice claimed that the union was unconsummated, thus invalid.
Charlotte was ever so thankful that her solister shut that down quickly. Besides being a desperate ploy, she did not want any scrutiny about her maidenhood.
Which brought them to the present, Lattice’s final ploy with Jase’s reluctant proposal in her deceased husband’s library.
The woman’s single minded determination was something to be admired, really. If Lattice hadn’t taken such a dislike to Charlotte– and really, it wasn’t a dislike of Charlotte so much as a dislike of Charlotte taking control of her husband’s fortune– she and Lattice might have been friends. Well, friendly. Certainly cordial.
“Well, what a recommendation on my charms,” Charlotte said drily.
Jase had the decency to flush, as if embarrassed. “I do admire you, Charlotte, but not romantically.”
Yes, he found nothing objectionable about her except he didn’t like her.
“She needn’t have bothered with her schemes,” Charlotte said, pulling another book from the shelf. She flipped through the pages and added it to the Questionable pile. “I’ve decided to continue her allowance.”
“Have you? That’s generous.” Jase examined the book she recently added to the pile.
“That’s what Lionel would have wanted,” she said. It was almost a meaningless phrase, like she knew Lionel well enough to decide what he would have wanted. Her husband had so many secrets. Terrible secrets. She hardly knew him. “Anyway, it’s moot. I’ve written to ask her to oversee running Vervain while I’m away.”
Jase’s brows went up in surprise. “You’re giving her what she wants?”
“Temporarily. As much as I adore my father, his head is the clouds. He can barely manage his own affairs, let alone run a household as complex as Vervain.” The truth of the matter was that the estate was a working farm that employed nearly a dozen locals. The village market and craft people relied on what Vervain produced. It would be remarkably inconsiderate for Charlotte to leave without making arrangements. As much as she disliked Lattice, the woman had experience running the estate.
“My solicitor is aware of the situation and understands that the arrangement is only until I return,” Charlotte stressed.
“Really, you need to tell Mother that. I’m surprised she’s not arrived yet.”
“I anticipate her arrival any moment,” she said, her good humor returning.
Jase surveyed the stacks of books. “Are you leaving soon?”
“In three weeks,” she said. “Mr. Bartram will need time after the equinox to recover.” Once Charlotte agreed to the vampire’s bargain, she wanted to leave at once. Too many people would try to change her mind, and she was correct. Everyone had an opinion about her decision and no one approved. However, as much as Charlotte desired to run away from her problems, they could not leave immediately. Miles had been apologetic as he explained that with the coming equinox, he required recovery time. The transition into his beast form was painful and all consuming. Apparently with time it would be easier, but he had only lived with the condition for a year.
What could she do? Force the man from his sick bed to trek across the untamed West Lands? Hardly. Considering that her late husband was most likely the one to have bitten Miles and cursed him to shift into a monster with every solstice and equinox… Well, accommodating his wishes was the very least she could do.
Besides, there was much to be done to prepare. As much as Charlotte longed to pack a bag and flee, she could not. She had responsibilities. Arrangements to make. Outfits to select. Luis and Miles informed her that Draven resided high in the mountains, so she would have to pack accordingly.
“Are you certain? A year is quite a commitment,” Jase said.
Charlotte kept her gaze on the bookshelf. She did not need a frown or a scowl to betray her true emotions. She loathed this house and the village full of people who pitied her. Charlotte Wodehouse, professional spinster, unlucky in love and cursed to be a widow on her wedding day.
She married Lionel Chambers because he made her an offer and, honestly, she didn’t have a lot of options. She was near thirty, of modest means, and not nearly pretty enough to marry well when she had no dowry. It was a brutal assessment but it was the truth. An impoverished young woman might marry well if she were beautiful. A woman with plain features, weak eyes, strong opinions, and a plump frame had to adjust her expectations, especially when it came to the limited pool of suitors in the village. Despite the difference in their age, Lionel had been a good match. He had a decorated military career. He had wealth. While his features were weathered and his hair more gray and not, she found him attractive.
Given the information Charlotte had– a retired military man, respected in the community, and wealth– she made the correct choice.
But Lionel kept secrets, deadly secrets, the kind with teeth and claws.
She couldn’t stay in his house, among his trophies, now that she knew the truth. Since the wedding, she had not set foot in the grand hall, where they held a wedding celebration and where Lionel lost control of the beast lurking under his skin. He shifted into a monster, attacked their guests, and tried to rip out her throat.
Luis saved her that night, driving a sword through the heart of her monstrous husband. And what did Luis ask for in return? A year? It was nothing. A year away from this haunted place was a gift.
“I’m certain,” Charlotte said.
The new arrivals waited in the tunnel between the gates. Five this time.
Once Draven would have observed his guests through cameras and on screens. Now he watched from a narrow slit cut into the rocks. It was one of several that lined the long tunnel connecting his fortress to the world. Unless one of the people below had exceptional eyesight, they would not see him.
But he saw them, as did the soldiers that stood at the other slits.
It was an old defense design, basic but brutally effective. The gate opened, and people shuffled in. If they passed inspection, the far gate opened, allowing them into the fortress. If not, they were trapped while fire and hell rained down upon them.
Raiders and outcasts arrived all the time, seeking refuge in his fortress, begging for miracles from a lost age. It was a hard life in the West Lands. They were either sharpened in order to survive or they were beaten down, lucky to have survived for as long as they did. Some were murderers, thieves, and the most dangerous sorts of persons. Others were the foolish innocents who thought they could live off the land and find balance.
Draven did not care. Dangerous or foolish, they all had their uses, as long as they were who they claimed to be.
“Sir, they claim to need medical attention,” Stringer said.
Draven did not turn to look as his lieutenant. He studied the people below. They clustered around a person on a make-shift stretcher, constructed from tree branches and canvas. As far as distractions went, it was a good one. One man had a badly broken leg, the white bone protruding. His face was pale and glossy with a cold sweat. Draven could smell death on the man, even from a distance.
He said nothing, his arms folded behind his back, and Stringer knew better than to interrupt while the vampire lord made his decision. That was one of the things he liked most about Stringer. The man was loyal, obedient, and did not hound Draven for constant conversation. What was there to say? New arrivals always needed medical attention. They often suffered from parasites, malnourishment, and various broken bones. Life in the West Lands was hard. He could not stress that enough. Humanity was an infection and the planet actively tried to remove that infection.
Why were people surprised when the planet’s immune system did what it was meant to do?
Humans thought they would change Nexus. Tame it. Such arrogance.
Draven’ tightened his grip on the stone, his fingers digging into old grooves.
Long ago, the arrogant human military carves this fortress out of the mountain. They designed the entrance with a series of gates and the long tunnel that led to the fortress above and the research facility below. Not many people knew of the abandoned laboratories under the stone. Draven made sure of it. Plenty of people knew about the vampire’s fortress perched high on the mountain. It was a beacon. He also made sure of that.
His gaze swept over the five figures again, taking into consideration their soddy gear and lean faces. They looked hungry. They looked desperate. It was very convincing. He had to be certain the new arrivals were who they claimed to be, people of no consequence, seeking refuge. The military tried to sneak in spies, but Draven always found them out. They had a certain stink about them.
Draven turned to his lieutenant. “Stringer, what happened to your face.”
Stringer touched his face, confused. “Nothing.”
“Exactly. Your eye is whole.” Draven had many resources, many relics from an age of wonder, but he had been helpless to prevent cancer from taking Stringer’s eye. The best treatment had been to cut it out and replace it with glass.
Stringer touched his cheek. “You’re thinking of my father, sir.”
“Yes. I’m Wallace Stringer.” The man flushed red in the face, clearly embarrassed to have to correct Draven.
It was maddening, the way the world parted around him like he was a stone in a river. Or snow settling on a mountain fortress, buried under time. Without an anchor, he felt himself erode away.
Draven stepped back from the window and straightened his shoulders. If his voice was colder than normal, Stringer did not comment. “Forgive me, Stringer. When you are my age, time is slippery.”
“It’s not a bother, sir. Father will be pleased you think of him.”
Ah, so the elder Stringer was still alive. At least Draven had not mistaken the young man for someone gone more than a century.
“Their boots,” Draven said, already turning his back to the window. “The new arrivals have military issued gear. Eliminate them.”
He walked away, confident that his soldiers would carry out the order.
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