She was alone again.
She despised it.
Her wounds were too fresh. The pit of her stomach stung, emptiness digging into her heart. Richter was back. He had finally come back, and now he was gone again. That was the life of a hunter’s wife, or so everyone told her. He would go out, she would stay in, and between the two of them, they would build a home softer and sweeter than any in their village. Other wives only had to worry about cleaning their husbands’ kills. Deer and boar, pheasants, creatures of God’s creation. What was she supposed to do with the demon Richter had brought home—the nightmare sleeping in their attic?
The floors creaked.
Annette stared at wooden ceilings. It had been nothing more than the house settling. She should have been used to such loneliness by now. Her home, once brimming with life, now struggled to flourish, like an axed tree growing new limbs from its stump. The last year had been hell. Grandpa Belmont, pale and frail, passed from this painful world in peace. Richter was not so placated. He had gone out in the woods one night and didn’t come home. Grandma Belmont went next, heartbroken, every last man in her life lost. Then, Maria. Brave Maria, thinking she could solve all of this.
In a way, she did. She was the one to bring Richter back.
But the monster they had caught…
Dusting. Annette pulled her head away from the glass panes on her front door. She could do that. It would certainly help clear up her watery eyes. She could always check on her cooking, too. Not that a stew required that much attention. There was laundry, dishes—so many dishes!—and sweeping to do. She had been idle too long. Never mind the demons her husband fought, the monster in her attic. Anxiety was the devil tormenting her the worst. Only work would make it stay away.
Blonde hair flew back as Annette tied her hair out of her face. A graze on her shoulder made her jump. She spun around, then sighed again. It was nothing more than stray strands falling out of her ponytail. How terrible it was, the way her mind played tricks. Hair could feel like anything, if she let herself believe in lies. Bird wings, spider legs, that cold bastard’s hands on her neck—
Annette clapped her face. “Just stop it.”
Tea. Tea would be good. Richter was never one for tea, but Maria enjoyed a good cup with her. When they got back from their shopping, Maria could sit with her and chat. About this, that, every last thing she had seen on her daring adventure to rescue Richter. Annette swished into the kitchen, her pointer finger instantly hooked into a nearby kettle. How she wished she was that graceful with a weapon. It was shameful that Maria had to rescue Richter, that his own wife couldn’t step foot outside their village. She was weak, an embarrassment to the Belmont clan, frailer than lace cozies and cotton fluff and—
The kitchen door squeaked.
Shadows spilled onto the kitchen floor. Long, spindly fingers wrapped around white wood. They slipped on the frame, corpse pale, damp with sweat. Hair fell behind them, strands of spider silk cascading from a high brow. Darkness fell to light—impossible, burning eyes, smoldering and churning like a dying fire’s embers. One glance was enough to pierce her own, stab right into her brain.
The devil wheezed through his gaunt puppet. “Miss—”
The unearthly shade disappeared from the kitchen door. It clattered against its frame, swinging wildly. Annette pulled away, fingers over her mouth. Stupid! So stupid! Like a monster would run from her screaming. She rushed to the kitchen’s entrance, then pushed the door back. Her frightened shadow was nearly up to the attic again. He stood at the top of the steps, huddled like a bewildered child beneath a single bedsheet. There was shock in his eyes, his spine wilted.
Of course, he was confused. He didn’t know where he was.
That, or where his clothes were.
Annette extended her hand. “Wait!” She beckoned him down once more. “I’m sorry. Come back.”
The strange creature didn’t run. He didn’t approach her, either. All he risked was a single question. “Where am I?”
“The Belmont Family Manor,” Annette replied.
“I see.” The lean devil gave her one nod. “Is Richter or Maria here?”
She shook her head. “They’re out running errands. We need more food in the house, and…” Annette waved her hand up and down the length of her guest’s body. “You need fresh clothing.”
It was strange how well the eerie man took to his state. He shuffled beneath the bedsheet coiled around him, as natural beneath it as a prince under a cape. There really was no doubting who he was. If Richter and Maria hadn’t told her the truth about him, she would have known it on sight. There was no getting over his posture, the weird glow in his eyes and sickly color in his skin. Even his aura was painfully familiar. At least she could breathe before him. He was ominous, but not oppressive—not dominating.
Her guest bowed his head. “I suppose I should wait for them to return. I hope you can forgive my intrusion.”
He turned away once more. Annette stomped on her foot. How could she have driven him off like that? He sounded like Death, his voice rattling in his throat. The devil hadn’t had a drink in well over a week. Lesser men would have been dead from what he went through. It was cruel to frighten him away. He was her guest, frail and parched, and she hadn’t given him a single drink.
Though, perhaps that was dangerous.
“Do you drink anything else?” Annette blurted.
The creature turned around. “Anything else?”
“Other than…” She could hardly say the word. “Blood.”
He nodded. “I can drink anything a human can.”
“Then, come back to the kitchen. I’ll get you a drink.” Annette pulled away from the stairwell, swinging a hand towards the kitchen. “I’ve got some bread cooling as well, if you’re hungry. There’s a bit of jam and honey left, and some left over eggs, if you don’t mind—”
“Anything you have is fine,” her guest cut her rambling short. “As long as you are alright with my company. I am indecent, after all.”
Annette waved him off. “Please. It’s not like I haven’t seen a naked man before.”
The creature cocked his head. He found proof of her golden honesty on her left hand. His gait was light on the stairwell, soft creaks no more than a mouse’s squeak. Annette pushed the kitchen door open for him. He floated inside, not so much as a single foot bare outside of his cover. A flush burned her brain. Perhaps she didn’t loathe his nudity, but there sure would be questions if neighbors saw her serving a strange, naked man in her husband’s home.
She studied her guest before drawing the door shut. He sat in the warm glow of one window’s sunbeam, relaxed as the sun rested on his forearm. Completely unlike any other creature of the night she had ever known. With his eyes closed, content to soak up the sun, he almost looked human. There was no ignoring his unnatural color, the sharp ears sticking out of his hair. Still, he seemed peaceful—content. His radiating calm even soothed her.
Annette brought the entire kitchen to the dining table. There was no way he could possibly eat everything she dragged in. Damned if he wasn’t trying, though. He wasn’t one to dive nose-first into a meal. Everything he wanted, he took with slow care. Two slices of bread. A scraping of eggs, just a little too cool. Bacon, nearly congealed. Milk. So much milk. But, nothing about the way he ate was grotesque or ravenous. He was starved, but not an animal.
Two knives pulled butter and jam across one thick hunk of bread. They smeared evenly, painted more than spread. They would have been perfect arcs, if not for the shaking in the stranger’s hands. Annette had seen that same shiver before. In Grandpa Belmont’s hands, too weak to hold a soup bowl. In Richter’s grasp, strong and scared, afraid that heaven would be taken from him again. Now here, in a starving spider’s limbs. Her guest was worn threadbare. Even the bed sheet wrapped around him couldn’t hide how exhausted he was.
“Are you alright?” Annette asked.
“I’ve been better,” the friendly devil replied. “Why do you ask?”
She motioned towards his right hand. “Your hands are shaking.”
He nodded. “So are yours.”
Annette jerked her hands back. She laced them together. It was the only way to stop her shivering. She hooked her right foot behind her left ankle, then lowered her hands onto the kitchen table. Couldn’t she do any better to hide her fear? Why was she afraid at all?
It wasn’t him that she feared. He was quiet, reserved, careful with where he laid his feet. It was just what he was—where he had come from. She saw his eyes, and saw irises even brighter, teeth long and arched. In the quiet murmurs from his lips, she could hear haughty laughter. She was captive to a shadow. Five years free, but still a prisoner to the mere thought of that awful demon.
Her guest prodded her out of her mental cage. “May I ask for your name?”
“Annette.” She tugged her fingers free, forced them to lay flat on the table linens. “Richter told me that you call yourself Alucard.”
He nodded again. “You don’t smell—pardon me, seem like a Belmont. Are you Richter’s wife?”
“Indeed,” Annette smiled.
Her joy drew a frown from her guest. He glanced down, struggling to pull himself from his embarrassment. Annette repeated his drop. This really was an uncomfortable conversation. Being practically naked would have been enough to silence most people. Watching him eat wasn’t exactly normal, either. Annette blew out her lips. She really should get back to work and let him eat in peace.
It was what he said next that distressed her the most. “Did he tell you what I am?”
She couldn’t lie to him. “No. I knew right away.”
Gold eyes flickered over the rim of a porcelain cup. “No wonder you are so frightened.”
“It’s not you!” More embarrassment stained her cheeks. “It’s…It’s…”
She couldn’t say it.
Her nightmares were in his blood. She could smell darkness rising from him like an intoxicating cologne. He was handsome. Beautiful. Soothing to the senses. That was why she shivered. Annette was one of very few people in the world—one who could withstand such wicked charms. Even so, they ate at her defenses, pulled at the strings that bound up her heart.
Terrified lips betrayed her thoughts. “I don’t know what it was.” Annette bowed her head. “If it was your nose. Your lips. Your teeth. Even before Richter told me, I knew what—who you were.”
Alucard lowered his drink. “You know who my father is.”
“Personally,” Annette confessed.
Waves of guilt pushed the monster’s spawn back. His utensils fell, cold against a cooling meal. He looked at his plate as though mold and ash was piled atop it. Disgust filled Annette, too. She knew better than to bring Alucard’s father up. He was dead and dead again, done in by her guest’s pale hands. She may as well have served him his father’s head, for how disgusted both felt about the horrible lord of the night.
“What did he do to you?” The question was too heavy for Alucard to speak. It fell away in a hushed whisper.
Annette’s voice cracked like her husband’s whip. “Nothing indecent!” She sighed, then shook her head. “Outside of the kidnapping, anyway.”
White hair tumbled as Alucard tipped his head. “You have a peculiar definition of the word indecent.”
She slumped onto her hands. “You know what I mean.”
“Indeed,” Alucard murmured.
Heat crept up Annette’s long neck. Ghostly fingers stroked her jawline. The memory of ice-cold lips seared her skin. Indecency meant nothing to a man like Dracula. Not that he would be seen less than at his perfection, saddled with the mud and filth of mortality. He only wanted what was perfect. Beautiful. In full bloom.
Annette sank into her guilt. If only her kidnapping had been to draw Richter’s ire. There was more to it than that. Dracula saw her as she was, saw the swell of thorns around her heart. He had picked at them, tugged them, twisted her back and forth. Which way he would draw them, she could never predict. Had he strangled her heart, she would have been a creature wickeder than any in Dracula’s castle. Had he pulled the brambles out of her—had he made good on the promises he swore to her—there may have been a second son of Dracula eating breakfast with them.
Annette melted into her clothing. “I thought I was just a pawn. But, every time we spoke…” She buried her nose in her fingers. “It’s frightening, how persuasive he was.”
Alucard stopped mid bite. “I know.”
“After a few nights in his realm, I…” Humiliation burned Annette’s eye shut. “God forgive me! I was so lonesome and scared. And he…he was kinder than I thought imaginable from a demon.”
Her guest’s gaze sank. “Perhaps his capacity for love is the most frightening part of him.”
Didn’t she know it. The path to her seduction was still too clear in her mind. “The first night, he barely stepped foot in my cell. The second night, he sat with me while I ate.” She drew her shivering body up. “The third, he touched my arm. Then, my thigh. Then…”
Another uncomfortable shudder stopped her. Annette dropped her head. What was she thinking, talking about this with a new acquaintance? Especially her kidnapper’s son! He looked like he could crawl beneath his bed sheet and hide until the moon came out. Of course, he knew how his father acted. He’d seen the same dance before—knew every last trick the old man would pull. How many women had he witnessed falling prey to his father? How many had been as foolish as she was?
Annette rubbed her neck. “I thought I was doomed.”
“But, you did not submit to him,” Alucard interjected.
He cracked her melancholy. It leaked out of her in black laughter. “You mean, I didn’t consent to him.”
All Alucard could do was nod.
“I was so close, though.” Annette pushed herself from her seat. Her nervous pacing did little to vent her energetic guilt. “Had Richter not come that very night, I would have given in. I would have! And I hate myself for it!”
“You did nothing wrong.” Alucard remained fixed, as stoic as stone.
She kept shaking her head. Hair fell from her as wildly as her thoughts. “But, to be tempted so…”
Her guest’s opinion did not change. “You fought him and won.”
A sharp snicker snapped through the kitchen. Annette clasped her fingers over her lips. She could hardly believe that ugly noise came from her. But, what was Alucard even saying? Was this some little joke of his? Annette the fighter. Annette the paladin. Annette the unconquered. What a riot!
When he didn’t move, she froze. “You’re not joking.”
Alucard’s face was as placid as the milk left in his cup. “I am not very good at telling jokes.”
“But, I didn’t fight him at all!” Annette’s dress slapped into the kitchen table as she swished around. “No hitting, no clawing. Just waiting! How can you call that fighting?”
A single squeak in the kitchen silenced her. She shivered as Alucard rose out of his seat, hands clasping his sheet firmly around him. That same noble demeanor that bared itself at the top of her stairwell now pinned her in place. Father and son shared their intensity. It was that dominating force that stilled her.
More impressive than that were the words that soothed her. “I have never known a woman of the Belmont family that has been weak. Not their daughters, and not their wives.” A noble head fell before her, gold eyes locked squarely on hers. “Richter was wise to put his trust in you, just as you were to trust in him.”
Tears came before she could stop them. Alucard was more frightening than she thought. He had his father’s power, his rich words, his imposing presence. He laid it all at her feet. Was he that confident in her, a complete stranger? Did he not fear repercussions from his words? Or, was it even worse—that he actually believed she was stronger than demons?
She fell into her seat once again. “I never thought he would come.” Blonde hair covered her weeping as she shook her head. “Not then, and not now.”
Alucard’s shadow bowed over her. “But, you did not leave him.”
“I couldn’t,” was all Annette could say. Her eyes were too full of tears, her nose stuffy from crying.
Cool fingers around hers drew icy jolts across her skin. “You are a wonderful woman, Annette.”
She rolled Alucard’s hand over. How strange it felt. Cold, but not freezing. Impossibly smooth. There wasn’t so much as a single callous across his palm. Even his nails were well trimmed, clean as a woman’s hand. It was hard not to think of his father’s talons, how strong and oppressive they were around her shoulders. The fingers now in her hand were comforting, gentle, open. Trustworthy.
A giggle bubbled out of her as she released him. “You’re just as bad of a flatterer as he was.”
“Perhaps so.” Alucard fell back from her. He returned to his seat, the floor squeaking again as he pulled his chair out. “However, I hope you will find some amenable qualities of mine that aren’t from my father.”
Annette’s smiles were lighter, easier to give. “Well, your eyes are much kinder.”
Alucard blinked. “Thank you.”
“Your ears don’t stick out as much, either.” She patted her own as she brushed her hair back.
That one caught him off guard. He reached back, struggling to hide his surprise. “I…I hadn’t noticed.”
Another giggle slipped out of Annette. Even her fingers over her mouth couldn’t stop it from escaping. “And you are built much more fairly.”
“Meaning?” Alucard asked.
Annette sighed. Like he couldn’t have figured it out. “I thought you were Dracula’s daughter, at first.”
Her jab bounced off of him like a flicked marble. “That’s hardly the worst assumption you’ve had about me.”
Not like he wasn’t right. She just didn’t want to concede.