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Reluctant Partnerships
by Ariel Tachna

Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: A spin-off of the Partnership in Blood series. Thanks to the efforts of Raymond Payet and l'ANS, vampires now have the same legal rights as mortals, and research at l'Institut Marcel Chavinier is focusing on the mysterious partnership bonds between wizards and vampires. But the battle for public opinion rages on. When Detective Adèle Rougier encounters Pascale Auboussu, a shy young woman turned into a vampire against her will, Raymond and Denis Langlois, chef de la Cour nearest the crime, fear a public relations nightmare. The vampire responsible for Pascale's turning must be brought to justice, but Denis is distracted by an unlikely potential partner--Canadian researcher Martin Delacroix, who is spending a year's sabbatical at l'Institut--and Denis's lingering feelings for his deceased lover prompt him to reject the bond. There's no denying the attraction between them, though, and the allure of companionship is nearly as strong as Denis's grief. Growing familiarity and yearning for a true mate may induce Adèle and Denis to soften their stances against new partnerships, but Adèle will have to accept a deeper intimacy with Pascale when she has never considered a relationship with a woman, and it will take a near-deadly attack to make Denis admit his most hidden desires. Now he has to hope Martin will be willing to stay.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011

eBookeBook

6 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [422 KB]
Words: 98862
Reading time: 282-395 min.


Chapter 1

Pascale rubbed at her eyes. She had enjoyed her visit with Stephanie and Remy. Dinner had been wonderful as always, and they had been as in love with each other as ever. Sometimes Pascale thought it would be easier to stop torturing herself instead of going to see them, so happy and snug in their little house when she was all alone, but she would never do that to Stephanie. They had been friends for too long.

With a sigh, she pulled into her garage, dreading the empty bed that waited for her. Maybe tomorrow she would meet someone. Maybe the woman of her dreams was out there right now, as miserable as she was.

She snorted at the maudlin turn her thoughts had taken. All the wishful thinking in the world would not make those dreams a reality. She grabbed her purse out of the passenger seat and headed inside.

As she reached for the doorknob, hard hands grabbed her from behind, one covering her mouth, the other around her throat, constricting her breathing. She tried to scream, to fight, to flee, but her attacker was too strong. Panic roiled through her as he dragged her toward the other door, the one that led outside to her yard. She forced herself to go limp, hoping he would take what he wanted and leave her alone.

She shuddered when she felt lips on her neck and prayed he did not intend to rape her. Then his mouth opened, biting down hard, breaking skin and drawing blood. She struggled again despite her best intentions, but her feeble thrashing did no good against his strength. It became harder and harder to breathe, to keep her eyes open, to think, like a shroud being drawn across her senses.

Dear God, don't let me die.

* * * *

Adele Rougier took a deep breath and steeled herself for the evening to come before getting out of her car at l'Institut Marcel Chavinier.

"Adele, I see you made it, if a little bit late."

Adele summoned a smile for Thierry Dumont, an old friend and one of the faculty at l'Institut. "What are you doing out here?" she asked as she kissed both his cheeks in greeting. "I would've expected you to be inside with Raymond and the others."

"I was finishing up some repairs on the grange," Thierry explained. "I needed a shower."

"How's that coming?" Adele asked. Even in the fading September light, Adele could see the difference in the grange. She had watched Thierry, his partner Sebastien, and a dedicated group of craftsmen transform the old monastery in Dommartin from near ruins a year ago, with only part of the abbey itself and the abbot's lodge in any usable condition, to a thriving research institute dedicated to exploring the partnerships between wizard and vampire, as well as other issues related to the magical community.

"We're making progress," Thierry said, starting toward the abbey. Adele fell in step beside him. "We've patched the roof completely. Bertrand started laying pipe so we can get water there as well. I'm not sure what Raymond plans to use it for, but he wants it solid, with heat and running water."

"You really like it here, don't you?" Adele asked, struggling as she always did to reconcile the image of Thierry here at l'Institut, acting as primary caretaker and guardian of the buildings, with the shrewd, calculating captain he had been during l'emeutte des Sorciers.

"I do," Thierry said, ushering her into the scriptorium, where twenty-five people sat around a large table.

"You've done fabulous work. Your affinity to stone really shines through." Adele had seen the condition of the property before Thierry had begun making repairs, his magic fusing stone to stone once more. It made the beauty of the buildings around her all the more impressive.

"We all have our own strengths," Thierry replied with typical modesty. "Your affinity to fire gives you an edge when it comes to the excitement of your detective work. We all did what we had to during the war, but the pace of life here at l'Institut suits me in a way your job never would."

"How did this week's seminar go?" Adele asked softly, hanging back by the door. If she went farther inside, Raymond Payet, director of l'Institut, would see her and ask her again if she wanted to try to find a new partner, the central purpose of the educational seminars and indeed of l'Institut itself. With everything they had learned about the partnerships they had created so swiftly and naively at the height of the war, Adele agreed with the logic of explaining the commitment to people before they created such a bond. She even understood Raymond's insistence that she join them for dinner at least once a week, preferably on Sunday at the end of that week's seminar, so he could make sure she was not suffering any ill effects from the separation from her own late partner, Jude Leighton. Jude had been destroyed during an attack on l'Institut six months before.

If she went inside, Raymond would certainly try once again to convince her to form a new partnership. She had yet to convince him that her partnership had not been the deep, life-changing relationship most of the partnerships had become.

From just outside the door, Adele watched as one of the wizards cast a cleansing spell on the hands of the ten vampires sitting on one side of the table. The ink marks on all ten hands disappeared, to some sighs of disappointment and perhaps one or two expressions of relief. None of the vampires was the partner of that wizard, nor of any of the others who might have tested their magic that night. If they had been, the ink would have stayed on their hands, untouched by the wizard's magic.

"Adele, you've arrived just in time."

Adele cursed under her breath. "Bonsoir, Raymond."

"Come see if any of the vampires is your partner," Raymond urged.

"Not tonight," she demurred.

Raymond looked like he was about to argue, but Jean Bellaiche, his partner and co-director of l'Institut, intervened. "Dinner will be ready in the refectoire if everyone would care to adjourn. We'll join you there in a moment."

The wizards and vampires who had come to l'Institut for the educational seminar filed out, leaving Adele alone with Raymond, Jean, and Thierry. "Leighton is gone," Raymond began. "There's no reason you couldn't form a new partnership."

Adele sighed. "Besides the fact that I don't want another one?" she asked. "I had enough of that with Jude."

She knew Raymond did not believe her, but she felt only relief at not wondering when her bastard former partner would show up on her doorstep and grab her, demanding blood and sex and submission. Raymond was too in love with his partner to understand that her own partnership had been the opposite. Even seeing how Jude had treated her at times, Raymond could not truly comprehend the depths of Leighton's cruel, crude, callous disregard for Adele.

"Leighton was an anomaly," Raymond insisted. "A new partnership wouldn't be that way."

"I know you believe that," Adele replied, "but that doesn't make me any more interested in taking the risk. Let's go. Dinner's ready and people are waiting on us."

Raymond pulled a face but gave in to her logic and Jean's guiding hand.

Adele wished, not for the first time, that she could find a way out of the weekly dinners, but work had not cooperated this week, and with no case to use as an excuse, she had given in to the guilt she felt at brushing off Raymond's concern. They had all seen the grief that had overtaken Blair Nichols, the one vampire she knew of who had lost his partner during the war, after Laurent Cope's death. Their partnership had been more like Raymond and Jean's or Thierry and Sebastien's, a true match of hearts and spirits that would have developed into a formidable bond if Laurent had not died in one of Serrier's attacks. She had lost sight of Blair after the war ended, making her wonder if Raymond importuned the vampire the same way or if Jean had reined his partner in on that score.

"I worry about you," Raymond said as they took their seats at the head table where Raymond always insisted Adele sit. She might not be on the faculty at l'Institut, but she was a veteran of l'emeutte des Sorciers like Raymond and the others on the staff, not to mention their friend. "Are you well?"

"I'm fine," Adele said as she did every week. She suspected it would be easier on Raymond if she was pining away from Leighton's loss. He would understand that emotion because it would be his own reaction if anything ever happened to Jean. She shuddered to think of that. She might have hated her own partner, but she recognized the devotion between the partners around her. "Are Alain and Orlando here tonight?"

It was a diversionary tactic, but it worked. "They should be, although they said they'd probably be late. They're in Paris at a meeting," Raymond said. "Did you need them for something?"

"No," Adele said. "I just hadn't seen them in a couple of weeks. You're not the only one who likes to keep up with his friends."

Raymond flushed. "Am I really that intolerable?"

"I know you want what's best for me," Adele replied. Now if they could only agree on what that was. Raymond wanted her to find another partner, or rather, the researcher in him wanted to know if it was possible for a wizard who had lost her partner to find another one. "So did you have any matches this week?"

"None," Raymond said with a frustrated grimace. "More weeks than not, we don't. It seemed so easy that first morning at the gare de Lyon. Not the meeting itself--that was incredibly awkward--but the partnerships. I don't understand why we have so little success now."

"A smaller pool to choose from, for one thing," Adele suggested. "Ten wizards and vampires a week instead of the four hundred people we gathered at the gare de Lyon. And not all of the wizards and vampires each week choose to try for a partnership. Even those who do decide to try but don't meet a partner leave with good intentions of coming back to try again in subsequent weeks, but you know most of them get busy with their lives and forget as many weeks as they remember. Without the pressure of the war to add urgency to the mix, people put it off. Or maybe they change their minds once they're away and have time to reflect. If we'd known then what we know now, I probably wouldn't have let Jude feed from me that first time."

"Really?" Raymond asked.

"Okay, maybe I would have because of the war," Adele admitted, "but Jude and I rubbed each other the wrong way from the moment we first spoke. He looked at the bite marks on my arm and judged me for it even though he knew why they were there. He never stopped judging me." Out of habit, she ran her fingers across the upper swell of her left breast where even now, she bore the scars of his fangs. Realizing what she was doing, she jerked her hand away quickly, hoping Raymond had not noticed. She had healed the other marks he left on her body, but she kept the one set of scars as a reminder of the mistake she had made once so she would not make it again.

Sebastien Noyer, Thierry's partner, joined them at the table before Raymond could reply to that, his hand trailing across the back of Thierry's neck as he passed. Adele smiled at the open gesture of affection between the two men. She knew partnerships could be positive and productive. She had only to look at Sebastien and Thierry or Jean and Raymond to see it. Unfortunately, her own partnership had been nothing but a nightmare.

"Bonsoir, Sebastien," she said, drawing Sebastien's attention from his partner to the social niceties he had ignored in favor of greeting the lover he had left perhaps ten minutes earlier.

"Adele, I didn't see you come in," Sebastien said, greeting her as Thierry had done.

"I just arrived a few minutes ago," she said.

"You're late tonight," Sebastien teased. "Did a case keep you?"

"Paperwork," Adele said. It was even mostly true. She could have done it earlier in the day, but she had been working on it at the time she normally would have left to come to dinner.

"You work too hard," Raymond said, drawing a snort of disbelief from Adele. That was a case of the pot calling the kettle black if ever there was one. "You need someone to make you relax."

"I don't need anyone to make me do anything," Adele retorted, hackles rising. "It was that kind of condescending attitude that made me hate Leighton so much. I didn't take it from him, even if I understood where his attitude came from. I'm certainly not going to take it from you!"

A reverent murmur went through the room, forestalling the rest of Adele's rant, although from Raymond's contrite look, he would have apologized before it went any further. Alain Magnier and Orlando St. Clair had arrived. To Adele, they were friends, fellow veterans, and more proof of how good a partnership could be, but she had spent enough time around vampires not involved in l'emeutte des Sorciers to know how they were viewed by the wider vampire community. The brand on Alain's neck, proof of a different kind of bond, set them apart and gave Orlando near mythical standing within vampire society. As striking as they were together, Orlando dark and slender, Alain fair and broader through the shoulders, Adele suspected they would turn heads even if they did not have the Aveu de Sang to set them apart.

When they reached the head table, they greeted everyone, ending with Adele, before taking their seats. "How did the meeting with Anne-Marie go?" Raymond asked.

"She said to tell you that you could have your job back whenever you wanted it," Alain said with a grin.

"Oh, no," Raymond said. "I served my time as president of l'ANS. That's her problem now."

They all laughed, Adele included. L'Association Nationale de Sorcellerie, the non-profit organization that campaigned for the rights of all magical beings, had fallen into Raymond's hands at the retirement of the previous president, Marcel Chavinier. Raymond had, in turn, retired from the post with the opening of l'Institut six months earlier. Anne-Marie Valour, his successor, was doing a good job from what Adele could see, but she tried to give Raymond the job back at least once a month.

* * * *

Yawning, Adele drove toward home, her thoughts all in turmoil. So far she had resisted Raymond's blandishments to try her magic on the vampires who completed l'Institut's educational seminars, but sometimes, especially on nights like tonight, when the partners around her seemed in a particularly affectionate mood, she wondered what her life might be like now if she had paired with someone different. It would always be her choice. Raymond could not coerce her into creating a new partnership bond. The whole point of having the seminars was to make both sides aware of the commitment entailed in forming a partnership, but she also knew he could not understand--not really--why she would not want it again, knowing what it meant. How could he, when Jean worshiped the ground he walked on, a feeling he clearly returned?

In the darkness and silence of her own bedroom, she could admit that she had not hated every minute of it. Most of it, but not all of it. Leighton, damn his black soul, had known how to touch her like none of her previous lovers had dared. She had fought him--and left him--because his attitude toward her was intolerable.

Shaking her head at her wandering thoughts, she yawned again, focusing on the road in front of her. As she rounded a bend, the beams of her headlights caught the slender form of a woman perched precariously on the edge of a bridge across one of le Morvan's many ravines. Slamming on the brakes, Adele grabbed her wand, jumping from the car and casting a spell on the woman to keep her from jumping. The woman's arms continued to move wildly. Adele cursed under her breath. She had felt the magic leave her. The spell had gone where she intended, but it hadn't worked.

Stomach churning, Adele recognized the irony that she had just been thinking of the only other person her magic hadn't worked on, but she did not have time to worry over the implications at the moment. She could not let the woman jump. Changing her tactics, she cast a spell on the bridge itself, raising a barrier between the woman and the ravine. "Come down," Adele urged. "No matter what it is you think is so bad, it isn't worth killing yourself."

"I'm already dead," the woman shouted back. "The fucker killed me and then instead of letting me die, he forced his blood down my throat and made me into a monster."

"Who?" Adele asked, walking slowly toward the woman. "Who hurt you?"

"I don't know his name. He appeared out of the darkness, grabbing me as I opened the door to my house." The words came out in short gasps. Adele wished she could see better in the darkness, the headlights from her car creating crazy shadows.

"He dragged me behind the garage and bit me."

Adele could sympathize with that feeling. Jude had grabbed her and dragged her into alleys, empty rooms, and any other private place he could find to feed from her whether she agreed or not.

"I could feel myself getting weaker and weaker, and then instead of letting me go, he tore open his wrist and forced his blood down my throat."

Adele shuddered. She had seen the strength of the vampires during the war. This slight woman who barely passed Adele's shoulder would have had no chance against one of them.

"When I woke up, he told me I was a vampire and I'd need to find someone to feed from so I didn't starve. I don't want to be a monster like him!"

"Calm down," Adele said soothingly, hiding her shock. She had learned enough about vampires over the past two years to know the mysterious vampire's behavior fell well outside the norm of accepted behavior within that community. She had no idea what, under French law, she could charge a vampire with for a non-consensual turning, but she knew without a doubt what the reaction of the vampire leadership would be. She moved closer, keeping her hands out in front of her where the other woman could see them. "You aren't a monster, no matter what he did to you. What's your name?"

"You don't know what he turned me into!" the woman wailed, completely ignoring Adele's question.

"You told me he turned you into a vampire," the wizard said, struggling to hold on to her calm. "That doesn't make you a monster."

"But he drank my blood. He took my life!"

Adele rolled her eyes. She wondered if the woman was always this melodramatic. "And gave you a different kind of life. Look, I know it's a change, a huge one, but I know some people who can help you."

"They can make me human again?"

"Nobody can do that," Adele said apologetically, "but they can help you learn to live with your new situation. I have some friends who are vampires, decent ones, not like the one who turned you without your permission. I can take you to them if you want. We can be there in twenty minutes. At least listen to what they have to say. If they can't convince you, it will be dawn in an hour or so. A lot of what you hear about vampires isn't true, but that part is. If you really can't deal with your new existence after you've talked to Jean and Sebastien, all you have to do is walk outside once the sun is up. It will be over in a matter of seconds."

"They won't... hurt me?" the woman asked, stepping away from the edge of the bridge.

"What else can they do to you that you weren't going to do to yourself?" Adele asked, stepping closer. "Come on. It's cold. You'll be warmer in the car."

"I don't even feel it," the woman said.

"There you go," Adele joked. "An advantage to being a vampire, because I'm freezing standing out here."

"Why are you helping me?"

"It's what I do," Adele said, pulling out her badge. "Detective Adele Rougier at your service."

"Enchantee, Detective."

"And you are?"

"I'm sorry," the woman apologized. "I'm Pascale Auboussu."

Adele had to suppress a shudder at hearing the first name of the dark wizard who had wreaked so much havoc in Paris before the Milice de Sorcellerie finally cornered and killed him. That wasn't this Pascale's fault, Adele reminded herself. Here in the country, she had probably been only marginally aware of what many saw as a magical problem. Most people outside of Paris had never registered that the loss of the war would have disrupted everyone's lives and instituted an absolute rule the likes of which had not been seen in France since the days of Louis XIV. Taking a deep breath, Adele let it go. She had more pressing problems. Like a potential partner who was newly turned and had no idea of anything. "Let's go, Pascale. Time's passing. We need to get you somewhere safe before sunrise."

In the dim glow of the car's dome light, Adele got a better look at the woman she had rescued. Pascale was petite, blonde, and slender, the opposite of Adele's height, dark hair, and curvaceous figure. Snarling at catching herself staring, she reminded herself firmly that she didn't want another partner, and even if she did, she liked men. Given her own experience and what she had observed, indeed what l'Institut was teaching during its seminars, anyone entering into a partnership needed to expect and accept it becoming personal, even sexual.

Even if she were interested--which she most certainly was not--asking Pascale to think about a partnership only hours after she was turned into a vampire was ludicrous. Better to leave her with Jean and forget she had ever laid eyes on the vampire. Pascale certainly would not know. Jean and Raymond would insist she participate in a seminar, but she would either find another partner or else continue to function as an unpaired vampire, and Adele could go about her comfortable existence much as she had the past six months.

Now if she could only believe that.

The wards at l'Institut parted easily to let her in, since she had set all of them when Raymond first hatched this crazy scheme. Adele smiled at the memory, but despite her doubts as she first prepared the wards, Raymond's "crazy scheme" had worked. More vampires and wizards flocked to l'Institut each week for the educational seminars, and the research they were doing had gained international attention.

Climbing out of the car, Adele was surprised not to see Raymond. A moment later, a very rumpled Thierry came into the courtyard. "What are you doing back?"

"Where's Jean?" Adele asked. "I found a newly turned vampire trying to commit suicide on my way home tonight. I stopped that, but she's lost and more than a little upset at the moment."

Thierry ran his hair through his short blond hair. "Let me get Sebastien. At least he can talk to her vampire to vampire."

"Where's Jean?" Adele repeated.

"He and Raymond went back to Paris for the night and tomorrow," Thierry said. "Something about meeting with Anne-Marie Valour. Apparently she had questions Alain and Orlando couldn't answer."

Adele nodded as Thierry went back inside the old abbot's lodge that had been converted into living quarters for the full-time staff at l'Institut. Jean and Raymond had the actual abbot's quarters. Thierry and Sebastien had rooms there, as did Alain and Orlando and a few others who presented regularly at the seminars. The participants stayed in the monks' cells in the main building, where they could interact more easily.

Thierry returned a few minutes later, Sebastien at his side. The dark-haired vampire could not have been more Thierry's opposite, slender where Thierry was broad-shouldered, dark where Thierry was fair, but Adele had seen the strength of their partnership too many times to doubt they belonged together.

"What's this about a newly turned vampire?" Sebastien asked.

"She's in the car," Adele said, "but go gently with her. Apparently her maker didn't give her a choice, and she's wishing she were dead."

"Didn't give...." Sebastien's face tightened. "There are names for people like that."

"What name?" Adele asked.

"Extorris if he isn't careful," Sebastien said.

Adele recognized the word, although she had been only peripherally involved in the trial and execution of Edouard Couthon, the rogue vampire who had killed several human victims before participating in Orlando's capture and torture during the war. Vampire justice had been swift and merciless.

"I thought that applied only in the case of a vampire hurting another vampire or an Avoue or something like that."

"The vampire turned her, then abandoned her," Sebastien said. "If you hadn't found her, she would have destroyed herself. That sounds like hurting a vampire to me. What's her name?"

"Pascale."

Adele winced as she said the name, sharing a pained look with Thierry. It would take more than two years of peace to get used to hearing that name without reacting when it had been a source of terror for the past four years. Two years of fighting, of watching people around her get hurt and sometimes die because of the evil of one man.

"He'll calm her down," Thierry said as Sebastien walked toward Adele's car. "He's one of the most matter-of-fact vampires I know."

"It's Sunday night, "Adele reminded Thierry. "There's no one here for her to feed from."

"We'll have to take her to Paris," Thierry agreed. "Angelique will help her, I'm sure. L'Institut can pay for it until she gets acclimated to her new situation."

At the car, Sebastien slipped into the driver's seat. "Bonsoir, Pascale. I'm Sebastien. Adele tells me you had a bit of a surprise tonight. How long ago did the vampire bite you?"

"I don't know exactly," Pascale said, her voice heavy with emotion. "Sometime between ten and eleven, because I was coming home from a friend's house when he grabbed me outside my house. I didn't fight him, hoping he'd take what he wanted and let me go."

"He did," Sebastien said. "He just took more than you thought. So if that's the case, it's been almost seven hours, and you have to be starving."

"I won't do to someone else what he did to me!" Pascale protested.

"You don't have to," Sebastien assured her. "See that man talking with Adele?"

Pascale nodded.

"That's Thierry. He's my partner. I've been feeding from him for getting close to two years now, and he's as healthy as ever. Healthier in some ways. He's certainly stronger than he was when we met."

"I don't understand."

"What the vampire who turned you did was unforgivable, but it doesn't have to be that way. With a bit of experience and a chance to learn control, you can feed as much as you need to without hurting anyone," Sebastien explained. "If you're willing, I'd suggest we go to Paris and see a friend of mine. She runs a restaurant for vampires. All the different flavors of blood you could possibly want."

"So... what?" Pascale said, her stomach churning at the thought of more blood in her mouth. Even upset as she was, she understood what Sebastien was trying to do, but nothing could make this new life appealing. "I give him what he wanted and live this way?"

"Your other choice is to end your existence," Sebastien said philosophically. "I've known a few vampires who made that decision, heard tales of a few more, but for the most part, we keep finding reasons to stay around a little longer."

"How old are you?"

"About five hundred years old," Sebastien said with a grin. "I'm told the years have been kind to me."

"We'll never get to Paris before dawn," Pascale said, "and Adele said I couldn't be out in daylight."

"Adele obviously neglected to mention a few things," Sebastien said with a short laugh. "Thierry, could you do me a favor?"

"Sure," Thierry said, coming to the car. "What do you need?"

"Can you send my new friend to place Pigalle? I'll get Adele to send me too. Pascale needs to meet Angelique."

"Of course," Thierry said, drawing his wand. "Relax," he told Pascale. "This will feel a little odd, but it won't hurt."

With a flick of his wrist, she disappeared. Sebastien dropped a quick kiss on Thierry's mouth before calling for Adele to send him to Paris as well. Moments later, he reappeared on place Pigalle, the Moulin Rouge to his left and Sang Froid, Angelique Bouaddi's establishment, to his right.

"I don't understand," Pascale said again.

"Thierry and Adele are wizards," Sebastien explained. "Come on. Sunrise is getting closer. It won't hurt me, but the same isn't true for you."

"Why won't it hurt you?" Pascale asked, hurrying to keep up with Sebastien's long strides.

"Because Thierry is a wizard," Sebastien replied. "I promise to explain everything I can, but first you need to get inside and you need to feed."

Sebastien held open the door to Sang Froid for Pascale.

"Sebastien, what are you doing here?" Angelique asked, summoned by the chime above the door.

Sebastien kissed Angelique on each cheek. "You're looking lovely as ever, cherie. This is Pascale. Pascale, Angelique Bouaddi, proprietress of Sang Froid."

"Enchantee," Pascale said.

"Indeed," Angelique replied. "What's your pleasure?"

"She doesn't know," Sebastien said. "She was turned earlier tonight and then abandoned by her maker. Adele found her and brought her to l'Institut, but Thierry is the only human in residence at the moment, and I didn't feel like sharing."

"Oh, ma pauvre," Angelique fussed, wrapping her arm around Pascale's shoulders. "Come inside and let me take care of you. Go away, Sebastien. This is girl talk."

"As if you wouldn't have the same talk with a male vampire," Sebastien laughed.

"Of course I would, but that doesn't mean Pascale wants you to hear her secrets," Angelique scolded. "Go away. I'll take care of her."

"Is David around, by any chance?" Sebastien asked. "Because if he isn't, I'm stuck here until Thierry sends someone looking for me."

"Don't terrorize my staff," Angelique said. "David is asleep, but I'll have him send you home when he wakes up. He had a bad case yesterday. I won't disturb him if it's not an emergency."

"Can I use your phone, then, so Thierry knows that I've been delayed?" Sebastien asked. He respected Angelique's protectiveness. David worked as a child advocate in custody and abuse cases. Sebastien suspected all of his cases were tough ones.

"It's behind the desk," Angelique said with a wave of her hand as she guided Pascale out of the main room and into her parlor-cum-office. "Now that the men are gone, we can talk."

"Talk about what?" Pascale asked nervously.

"Which of my lovely employees will provide the blood you need tonight," Angelique said. "You are hungry, aren't you?"

"Ravenous," Pascale said, "but how am I supposed to choose? Does one person's blood taste different from another's?"

"You aren't supposed to choose," Angelique said. "Not without some experience. I, on the other hand, have centuries of experience to share with you, and over a hundred years of matching vampires with my employees. And yes, the taste of blood varies from person to person. I'm sure we can find someone who appeals. Male or female?"

"Female," Pascale replied immediately. "Well, as a rule, anyway."

"Female it is," Angelique said without blinking an eye. "Your age, younger, older?"

"How is this supposed to help?"

"Because what you prefer in a person generally carries over to what you will prefer in their blood," Angelique explained patiently. "Answer the question."

"Older," Pascale whispered. "Not a lot, but a few years anyway."

"Femme or butch?"

Pascale hesitated, not sure she was comfortable discussing such things with a woman she barely knew.

Angelique laughed at her shyness. "I lived in a harem, dear," she said, holding up her henna-covered hands. "There is nothing about sex and sexual preferences that I haven't seen and probably lived. You don't need to be embarrassed with me."

"Not butch," Pascale said. "I don't want someone masculine, but someone who can take charge and take care of me. I'm not the aggressor."

"That may change a little now that you're a vampire," Angelique said, "but for now, any preferences in coloring?"

"Dark," Pascale said. "Someone like you, if you weren't a vampire."

Angelique laughed. "Oh, darling, they stopped making them like me centuries ago, but I'll find someone who suits. Let me show you to a room."

"A room?"

"Feeding is very personal, very intimate," Angelique explained. "As a rule, vampires feed in private. Since this is your first time, I'll be there to help you find your balance. Your maker should have done this, but since he... she?"

"He."

"Since he didn't do his duty, I will take his place gladly."

Angelique led Pascale to a finely appointed sitting room, furnished with two love seats and a chaise longue. "Make yourself comfortable. Take off your coat, your shoes, too, if you want. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Angelique left Pascale alone, shutting the door behind her. Pascale started toward the shuttered window, wondering what time it was, but the heat coming through the closed volets nearly burned her. She jerked her hand away, seeing the grey cast to her skin and feeling the painful tingling along her arm. "What nightmare have I walked into?"

Angelique returned a few minutes later with a beautiful, busty woman in tow, exactly the kind of woman Pascale might have flirted with when she came to the city. Exactly the kind who never gave her the time of day. "Pascale, this is Isabelle. Isabelle, the vampire I told you about."

"Welcome to Sang Froid," Isabelle said, holding out her hand. Pascale took it uncertainly, her eyes fixed on the pulse at the woman's wrist. Her mouth watered. She could practically taste the blood flowing beneath the surface.

"Gently now," Angelique said. "You can't simply dive in. Have a seat on one of the couches where you'll be comfortable."

Pascale frowned. This was the part where her shyness always kicked in and she lost her nerve. She took a seat as Angelique instructed, wondering how she was supposed to make small talk while the urge to bite, anywhere she could, was nearly overwhelming.

"Take her hand again," Angelique instructed. "Lick the skin of her wrist. You should always prepare the place you intend to bite. Your saliva will numb the area a little so the bite hurts less, and afterward, you lick the whole area again to help her heal faster."

Pascale breathed a huge sigh of relief, lifting Isabelle's wrist to her mouth and licking over the lightly perfumed skin. The smell went to her head, evoking an odd tingling in her mouth, then a sharp pain.

"Look at me," Angelique said.

Pascale turned her head.

"Show me your teeth."

Confused, Pascale smiled.

"Good, your fangs dropped on their own. Sometimes new vampires have a problem with that, and then it gets complicated. You can bite her now."

Pascale looked up at Isabelle.

"Go ahead," Isabelle said with a friendly smile. "I'm a willing participant in this."

"You enjoy it?" Pascale asked, caught by the smile.

"Very much," Isabelle said. "It's a good job, and I've grown to crave the feeling of a vampire's fangs in my skin."

Bemused, Pascale lifted Isabelle's arm to her lips, biting into the skin.

"Harder," Isabelle said. "Your fangs are sharp, but you have to push them deep enough to draw blood."

Pascale pressed harder, feeling the sudden give in the other woman's skin as her fangs pierced deep. Blood flooded her mouth, surprising her. She almost choked as she tried to find the rhythm that would allow her to swallow.

Next to her, Angelique kept a close eye on Isabelle. The woman was one of her longest-term employees. She would know when she reached a critical level and Pascale needed to stop. The vampire herself would learn to identify that moment in time, but not tonight, with the need of her turning burning through her. Angelique suspected it would take two or three feedings to satisfy her completely.

When Isabelle nodded, Angelique tapped Pascale's shoulder. "That's enough," she said.

Pascale gripped Isabelle's hand tighter.

Angelique tapped a little harder. "Pascale, you need to let her go now."

Pascale ignored her.

Grabbing Pascale's hands, Angelique forced them away from Isabelle's wrist. The moment her hand was free, Isabelle snatched it back.

Pascale spun to face Angelique, her eyes wild. "I wasn't done."

"No, but Isabelle is," Angelique said mildly. Her superior age guaranteed she could restrain Pascale if she needed to, but usually her calm demeanor did the trick.

"I'm still hungry!" Pascale shouted.

"And Isabelle's sending someone else in," Angelique said, "but you have to get control of yourself. You said you didn't want to do what he did to you, but if you don't control the beast driving you to feed, you will do exactly that, intentionally or not."

"How?"

"You probably can't control yourself now," Angelique said honestly. "You're newly turned and the blood hunger is driving you hard. After you've sated yourself and rested, we will talk again and I'll teach you some techniques."

They repeated the process twice more before Pascale let go of a donor's wrist voluntarily. "There is a bedroom down the hall where you can rest today," Angelique said. "You'll be hungry again tonight, but we will talk some more before then."

"I don't think I can rest," Pascale said. "I'm on edge."

"That's a side effect of feeding," Angelique agreed. "With a willing partner, the fastest way to ease that restlessness is a round of hot, sweaty sex. Unfortunately, that isn't on offer here. I don't run a sex shop."

"So what am I supposed to do?"

"There's a vibrator in the drawer, still in its package," Angelique said. "It's yours if you want it."

"Why are you being so helpful?" Pascale demanded.

"Because Sebastien asked me to, because every vampire should have guidance when they're turned, because you remind me of a girl in the harem, because this is what I do," Angelique replied. "Take your pick."

"Are you sure you won't join me?" Pascale asked, the blood rushing through her system emboldening her.

"You are temptation itself, but I have a lover," Angelique said, "one whom I am not willing to give up. Before I can do anything, I would have to talk with him, and he will have already left for the day."

"A vampire?"

"No, a wizard."

"Another wizard? I'd never met one in my life until tonight and now they're everywhere!"

"You're a vampire now, a magical creature," Angelique reminded her. "Wizards are about to be a large part of your life, at least until you're ready to be on your own again, and perhaps even after that. I predict you have about twelve hours before Raymond and Jean descend on you, and that's only because they'll wait for sundown before they disturb you."

"Who are they?" Pascale asked.

Angelique laughed. "The two most charismatic men you'll ever meet. Either one of them is enough to turn a woman's head. Together...." She shook her head and laughed again. "More relevantly, they're the chef de la Cour of Paris and his Consort, as well as the directors of l'Institut Marcel Chavinier."

"None of which tells me anything," Pascale reminded her.

"Rest," Angelique insisted. "The sun is up and you're about to be very twitchy unless you're somewhere dark and enclosed. You'll be safe in the bedroom as long as you stay away from the volets, but you'll rest better if you close the bed curtains too."

Pascale wanted to argue, but Angelique was implacable, showing her into the small, well-appointed bedroom, offering her a nightgown if she wanted, and closing the door firmly behind her. Pascale checked the handle the moment she was gone. The door was unlocked. She could leave if she wanted, the room, anyway. The sun outside would keep her from leaving the building.

The thought surprised her. Sometime in the past hour, she had recovered her equilibrium and her desire to live, even in this altered state. She had no idea what it really meant to be a "magical creature" as Angelique had said, but she had fed without hurting the people who helped her. She could exist this way without becoming a monster. It would be different, but perhaps it would not be horrible. Suddenly exhausted, she climbed into bed, drawing the bed curtains as Angelique had suggested. Cocooned in darkness, she closed her eyes and let dreams take her.


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