What were the women of his time thinking to allow him to go unscathed? She wanted to fan herself with the cards she appeared to hold. "So ask your question," she absently said.
"Were you survived by any of your family?"
"Non. I never knew my father. Maman died when I'd just turned sixteen. I was an only child."
She dealt again. He had an ace showing, and she had seventeen. Dealer holds. "Merde," she snapped when he flipped a ten of clubs.
He asked, "Why didn't you know your father?" When she hesitated, he repeated her words: "Any question whatsoever, truthfully and completely."
"I didn't know him because he was a scoundrel. He was rich, a scion of Nîmes, France, and my mother had been a young servant in his home. He was married, but he still seduced her. When she revealed to him she was expecting his child, he told her, 'Take the voyage to America, and I'll follow right after my divorce. We'll raise the baby there as a family.' But he never came. She waited for him - stranded here, pregnant, and without enough money to return."
"Maybe he died on the crossing. Who knows what could have happened to him?"
"Non, he sent maman a pittance that only served to let her know she'd been duped - a potential scandal decisively removed from soci®¶t®¶'s eyes. To her dying day, she thought he would come for us, so she never remarried." Though there were certainly proposals in her line of work - some even legitimate.
N®¶omi had been unable to comprehend how Marguerite could turn away opportunities for a better life when they were offered to her, opportunities for a French ®¶migr®¶e dancer and her bastard to get out of the Vieux Carr®¶.
In N®¶omi's mind, if a woman was silly enough to wait for a man to save her, then she didn't get to be choosy about which man it would be.
Marguerite's life had taught N®¶omi well. She'd vowed never to be in that situation, dependent on a man.
She dealt once more. She had nineteen, while he had a jack of hearts showing. "Hit," he said. She did. "Hit again. And once more." He flipped his cards over. Jack, two, three, six.
Her lips thinned. This card game wasn't working out as she'd planned. She'd hoped to find out about his past and how he'd gone a lifetime without sex - not to get interrogated.
"Twenty-one the hard way. I win again. If your mother didn't remarry, how did the two of you live?"
"That's not a thorough answer."
"She was a burlesque dancer. I grew up in lodgings above the club."
He raised his brows. "This explains much about you, and your lack of modesty. But with your looks" - his gaze dropped to her breasts, then swiftly back up - "why didn't you follow in her footsteps?"
She gave him a bland smile. "Who says I didn't?"
He looked aghast. "But you were a ballet dancer!"
"Not always," she murmured.
"You can't leave it at that."
"Then win this hand." Twenty to her and seventeen to him. I win." Finally. And if he was going to dig into her past, then... "Why aren't you more loyal to your family?"
He narrowed his eyes. "You're going to question my sense of loyalty?"
"Oui. Actually, I just did."
"I was in the Kapsliga for eighteen years. Then they turned on me. I fought side by side with my brothers for over a decade - they made me a monster."
"Why do you feel like you're a monster? I wish you didn't view vampires the way you do. You're growing on me" - I'm infatuated with you - "and I think your brothers are honorable men. The fact that you are all vampires is incidental."
"Incidental. My beliefs boiled down to one word." He fingered the edges of a card. "If you saw me in the midst of bloodlust, you'd think me a monster. Now deal. I'm keen to get to my questions."
She dealt. "Ha! I win. Why are your three brothers... different from you? Why did they never drink from the vein?"
"Sebastian prevented himself by becoming a hermit, staying away from any temptation. The oldest two joined an order, an army called the Forbearers. Their first law is never to take blood straight from the flesh. Though now I've heard they're allowed to drink from their immortal Brides."
"The Forbearers are King Kristoff's army, n'est-ce pas?" When he nodded, she said, "Why didn't you just join up with your brothers?"
"Kristoff's a bloody Russian!" he snapped, his broad shoulders tensing. "I fought those bastards for over a decade, in near daily battles, and then I was killed by Russian steel. I wake up, and I've got one's blood running in my veins, my brothers pledging my goddamned eternal fealty to him - a Russian and a vampire. There could be no combination I despised more."
"If these Forbearers fight tirelessly against evil vampires - "
"Kristoff has turned thousands of humans. The Lore balances itself, but not when he's creating vampires like that." Visibly making an attempt to calm himself, he said, "Deal."
"And the tide of twenty-one is turning," she said when she got vingt-et-un. "Tell me about your family."
He impatiently said, "My parents were a love match. My mother died giving birth to the last of four much younger sisters. My father was considerably older and never recovered from the loss."
"Three brothers and four sisters? You had seven siblings? I always wished for even one brother or sister."
"My sisters didn't live long - they died of the sickness. The oldest was only thirteen."
"I'm sorry, Conrad."
"I wasn't as close to them as I could have been. As I should have been. I'd already been fighting for the Kapsliga for years by the time the first one was born. They were closest to Sebastian."
"Why were you the son who was chosen for the Kapsliga?"
"Nikolai was the heir, Sebastian the scholar. Murdoch was the lover. As I had no pronounced interest, I became the killer."
"Why wouldn't you think of yourself as a protector? You saved human life. You protected them from horrible fates."
"And then later I meted out horrible fates. Now deal."
"Merde," she muttered again when she lost by one. "Posez votre question."
"You actually took off your clothes in front of crowds of strange men?"
"Yes, I did. My mother had just died unexpectedly. My choices were to dance in the club at night and continue my ballet during the day, or go to the paper factory to work for the rest of my life." She'd had no marriage proposals in sight then. After all, she'd only been in her midteens.
He narrowed his eyes. "You said your mother died when you were sixteen."
His lips parted, exposing those fangs that were somehow becoming very attractive to her. "But sixteen?"
"Et alors. I'm not going to apologize for it. Times were different then, and I actually enjoyed it for the most part. I kept that chapter of my life secret, not because I was ashamed, but because I knew people would have the same reaction as you - and do close your jaw, vampire."
"You weren't a virgin, were you?"
She blinked at him. "Non, je suis Capricorne."
Ignoring her comment, he said, "And you weren't married?" When she shook her head, he gave her a look that said, Ah-ha, one of those women.
"Yes, Conrad, I am one of those women." She smiled as she dealt. "And I'm not ashamed about that part of my life either."
He hurried through the hand and won again. But when he hesitated with his question, she knew he was about to ask how many men she'd known - and N®¶omi didn't think he'd like the answer...
"How many men had you been with?" he finally asked.
"Do you really want to know?"
Conrad nodded, though he wasn't entirely sure. He was still grinding his teeth over her stripping off her clothes for crowds of men in the twenties.
"Less than a score and more than a single," she answered.
"Truthfully and completely," he reminded her.
"Very well. I'd had four lovers b the time I was twenty-six."
"That many?" He scowled, bristling about the fact that four men had known her body and he hadn't.
"Alas, that few." Though I would have had a legion more if birth control had been more reliable." She was so open about this subject, even seeming proud of her experience.
At least she has some, he thought darkly. His own was nonexistent. And worse - N®¶omi knew it.
He'd been a young thirteen when he'd made the vow to the Kapsliga, long before he'd been able to understand exactly what it would mean to him.
Unfortunately, he had other men's memories of sex. Not one among them was what he wanted to see, to experience - some made his skin crawl. He worked to block them out as soon as they arose... . "Is that why you broke it off with your fianc®¶? Because you didn't only want one lover?"
She shook her head. "I was tediously monogamous."
"He hadn't done one thing specifically. But I always had a sense of disquiet about him. Regrettably, the only thing stronger than that was my need to have the very best. If there was another way to aim - except for the best, the most enviable - I didn't know of it. And Louis was the most eligible bachelor in the parish. He was extremely handsome, and the man had money - oil money."
A spike of some unfamiliar feeling hit his gut, settling there to burn. "So what happened with the oil man?"
"I knew I'd ignored my instincts about him for too long. And I'd realized that I didn't have to be married. Not to him, not to anyone. I was having too much fun on my own and doing just fine financially. So, after half a year of tempting him to marry me, I changed my mind. For Louis, that proved unforgivable."
"And how would a woman tempt a man to marry her?" Conrad asked, striving not to sound as intrigued as he was. He imagined her using her wiles on himself to get something, and the idea... excited him. He'd withhold whatever it was she wanted for as long as possible.
"I teased him. And then I didn't give him the milk for free."
Milk? "Ah. I see." At least she hadn't slept with the oil man.
"Vingt-et-un. I win," she said. "Now, tell me about the injury on your arm." When he hesitated, she added, "Any question whatsoever, truthfully and completely."
"Tarut, a Kapsliga demon, clawed me. It won't heal until he's dead." Conrad had been thinking that Tarut might be at that gathering. If Conrad could get free of these cuffs, he could go on the offensive and take the demon out.
"Why did he do that to you?" she asked.
"He thinks I should be dead - I disagree."
"How could he escape you? He must have been very strong."
"Tarut has a gang." Many demon species instinctively hunted in packs - Conrad would have to watch for them at the gathering as well. "Overall, demons are one of the strongest species in the Lore, and Tarut is older and powerful."
"How did you become an assassin?" she asked, the card game forgotten.
"I wanted the pay."
"Greed, Conrad?" she asked softly. "That doesn't seem like you."
"How would you know?" When she shrugged, he bit out, "I needed the pay. After the Kapsliga turned on me, I didn't know where to go or how to feed myself."
"They hunted me like a goddamned rabid wolf when I had no idea even how to survive as a vampire." Never had he been so weak, so bewildered. Half of his family had just died; the other half had become his enemies, and he was forever changed. "I was starving, and blood was everywhere I turned. Each night, I struggled not to drag a human down and feed."
"Then what happened?"
"Blood drawn from donors could be bought, but it was expensive. I stumbled upon a lucrative bounty for a shape-shifter, one that no one else would hunt."
"Because defeating a shapeshifter is a tricky thing. By the time you figure out how to contend with one form, they shift to another. I was exhausted from thirst, and the bastard roundly kicked my ass. Just when I was about to die, this new, overwhelming instinct took over." His fangs had sunk into the shifter's neck and blood rushed before his eyes and slid down his throat... . Lost...
"Conrad? Stay with me. Conrad!" When he finally faced her, she said, "You were talking about the instinct... "
"It was a vampire's instinct. It ruled me. I returned for the bounty with not only the shifter's head in a burlap bag but also his memories in my head. Suddenly I was in high demand."
She bit her bottom lip. "How many have you killed?"
"Countless. And then there were the targets I took out when I was human. I killed my first vampire when I was thirteen."
"So young? What was your life like as a human?"
"Most of it was horrifying, cold, and desperate. If the marauders didn't get you, the plague would. You didn't want to embrace a loved one who returned home because you didn't know if they'd brought death with them. We'd been rich - but there was no food or goods to buy."
"I'm sorry it was so hard for you and your family."
"That part's done with at least. What was yours like?"
"The opposite. For me, life was sensual, sultry, and passionate." Her eyes went dreamy. "I remember the throbbing heat of the French Quarter in summer. On every street, haunting music played. I frolicked in fountains and went jazzmad - which, incidentally, could be used as a successful legal defense in my time." She tilted her head at him, and her hair swayed over her pale shoulder. "I wonder what you would've thought about that time and place."
"It would have been alien to me. My culture worshipped the military and discipline."
"Mine worshipped jazz, hooch, and the relentless pursuit of pleasure. The warlord and the ballerina - as different as we can be."
"What did being a ballerina entail?"
"Performance after performance. Though I did like to play, when not on tour, I also trained six days a week without fail."
"I could tell. When I saw you dance."
"Ah, that's right. You witnessed it. The day before yesterday cracked up to be a bad day for N®¶omi, the lapdog."
He scowled but still asked, "Why are you so... patient with me? After the things I said?"
"Because I know you didn't mean them. And because I don't believe you're as bad as everyone thinks."
She had no idea. It would be best to end her flirting and playful looks of interest now. "N®¶omi, you have an idealized image of me in your mind. Let me make this plain for you. Less than two weeks ago, I killed a being, and I drank blood from his neck like a beast drinks from a gutter."
Wide-eyed, she said, "Well, that image certainly does dampen your attractiveness! But luckily you have a deep voice, which I like more than I should - so that neutralizes all that beast and gutter business."
He alternately liked and hated when she played as if she was attracted to him. "You make it sound so easy to dismiss."
"What's past is past, Conrad. Now you must learn from it and move on. If I'd had your mentality, I would always have been a burlesque dancer. I never would have aspired to being a ballerina, a profession that brought me great joy. Imagine all the things you're missing out on. Your Bride, a family, contentment. Unlike me, you can have a future - it's out there, just waiting for you to claim it. You have so much to look forward to, if you'd just stop looking back."
This was exactly what made her so dangerous to him - she did make him imagine all the things that could be. Such as having her as his Bride.
His dream... her doom. He shook his head hard. The curse couldn't touch her - even if it was real. She couldn't physically be harmed. But he still wanted to go on the offensive with Tarut. "N®¶omi, when my brothers come back, you have to get the key."
She gave him a mysterious shrug that said everything and nothing. "I'm tired, mon grand. I'm going to sleep."
He spoke French fluently. Mon grand meant my big man. A teasing term of affection.
"Where do you go?" When he'd searched the house for her, he'd seen that the master bedroom had a few spare pieces of furniture, but that wasn't where she went when she wasn't with him. She had to have a secret hiding place.
"Oh, here and there."
"Will you come back tomorrow?"
She sauntered over to him. "Honestly, vampire" - with a wave of her hand, she brushed his hair from his forehead - "if you stay charming like this, how will I ever be able to stay away?" With that, she disappeared.
But she was coming back. Because she couldn't help herself.
Suddenly Conrad found his lips curling.
"And we'd been doing so well... " N®¶omi muttered, which only angered Conrad more.
Over the last three days Conrad's road to recovery hadn't been straight and even - more curving, filled with hairpin turns and many double-backs.
They were presently on a double-back.
"N®¶omi, make the vow that you'll get me the key!" He paced menacingly in front of the window seat she occupied. "My brothers will doubtless return tonight."
They were already a day overdue. "I've told you I don't want to talk about this." Giving him his freedom wasn't even an option for her. Murdoch had said that Conrad would relapse if released too soon, and she still feared he would attack his brothers if he went into a rage at the wrong time.
If her resolve wavered, she had only to remind herself that Conrad had spit blood at Nikolai's face less than two weeks ago. For centuries, his loyal brothers had searched for him - N®¶omi wasn't going to be the blunderheaded ghost who stupidly freed him just when he was improving.
Hiding the key from him was risky - she could predict the anger she was inviting, but she didn't want Conrad to dwell on it, not when he was slowly but surely recovering. If he was aware that she had it, he would do nothing but browbeat her for it, obsessing over it.
She'd never lied to him, instead evading the subject, but she knew if he ever discovered she already had the means to his freedom hidden in a slipper in her studio he'd be murderous... .
He halted his pacing. "I know you see my brothers as heroes, but if I don't improve, they will kill me, N®¶omi."
She didn't believe that but knew she couldn't convince Conrad. "Do you think I would ever let you be harmed here?" Anyone who tried to kill her vampire would find himself tossed into the bayou pour les alligators.
"You don't understand what's at stake!" he snapped, raising his voice to just under yelling. "In case you didn't hear them, they're keen to 'put me out of my misery'!" A muscle in his jaw ticked - a portent that always signaled a rage was nearing.
Unfortunately, he still continued to have them. A male like him simply couldn't stand to be trapped. This situation was making him feel powerless on a continual basis, and he had difficulty moderating his aggression.
Sometimes he seemed like a powder keg about to go off. And yet she found an honesty, a purity about his fierceness. Louis had been all false faces and deception. Conrad's ferocity was raw and bare. You knew exactly what you were getting.
This didn't mean she would meekly accept it when he was hurtful. She'd once read an article about setting boundaries with the people in your life. If their behavior proved unacceptable to you, you didn't reward them with more attention. When Conrad grew unpleasant, she simply left - which had the lamentable outcome of angering him even more.
Eventually his temper would cool, and he'd find her at the folly or in the tangled garden. As he gazed at anything but her face, he'd hold out his hand and gruffly say something like "Come" or "Do not stay away... ."
"Damn it, N®¶omi! Why wouldn't you do this for me?"
When he punched her wall, she reached her limit. "I've asked you over and over not to damage my house, Conrad," she said in as calm a tone as she could manage. "My home might not look like much, but it's all I have. If you can't respect my wishes, then I don't want to be around you."
So he couldn't follow, she traced outside into the late-afternoon sun. Starting at the overgrown gardens. From there she floated along the buckling, overgrown path to the folly.
As she approached, she heard unseen creatures slipping beneath the water. They sensed her easily enough. Why couldn't others? Why did it have to be only Conrad et les animaux... ?
Anytime he tried to get control of his temper, he strode out here and paced. When she spied a worn path winding around the cypress knees along the bank, she felt another pang. What am I going to do with him?
He was trying so hard. And he had made progress.
She'd seen him take a rag to his dirty boots, cleaning them as best as he could, like the soldier he'd once been. He showered every day, brushed his teeth, and shaved. Well, maybe he shaved every other day. But she liked the stubble. Every sunset, she battled her repugnance and brought him a mug of the blood left by the brothers, which Conrad drank only because it obviously cost her so much to serve it. Already his color was better, his muscles growing even bigger.