28 September 1823
St. Pancras Cemetery, London
“If one desires a task accomplished correctly, one must do it herself.” Cassandra Burton, Dowager Countess of Rosslyn, repeated the litany as she pulled the rickety little wagon through the moonlit aisle of tombstones.
She shivered under her velvet cloak. Her fingers had long since gone numb with the effort of navigating the dratted conveyance over uneven ground and across slippery, damp grass. Shovels and pry bars clanked across the wagon’s worn pine boards. The winch rattled on its frame.
Something flickered across the corner of her vision.
Cassandra jumped. She stopped and rubbed her gloved hands together for warmth, surveying the graveyard. The area was still and silent as…well, a tomb. Yet the chill in her spine refused to abate. A scornful frown turned her lips at such irrational behavior. Ghosts were an illogical figment of uneducated imaginations, and no one could possibly have business out here at this hour…except herself.
“Worthless curs,” Cassandra whispered in as haughty a tone as she could manage.
If only the men to whom she’d offered a more-than-generous sum to perform this troublesome task had done their duty, rather than disappearing. She shook her head. If not for their unreasonable negligence, she would now be comfortably ensconced in her laboratory unraveling the secrets of the human body…not out in this cold, dreary place, jumping at shadows.
Surveying the newest graves, she read the dates to decide which would be the best specimen. The mysterious disappearance of her hired hands nagged at her. Could a murderer be on the loose? She shook her head and pulled the folds of her cloak tighter. No, by now the authorities would have found their bodies and the news would be sensationalized in The Times.
They were cowards, but she was not. To prove her lack of fear, Cassandra halted her wagon and fetched out a shovel. Her hands trembled nervously as she grasped the wooden handle.
Removing the dead from their graves was illegal. If a constable caught her, she’d be sent directly to Fleet Prison. A fresh surge of trepidation curled in her belly.
Exhuming a corpse was quite a different matter from having one ready on her operating table. As objective as she tried to be, the prospect of removing the body from its carefully arranged resting place by winching it out of the ground and loading it onto her cart was undeniably gruesome. However, gruesome or not, Cassandra needed a specimen to continue her work. And she would acquire it, no matter how much her nerves protested.
Despite being barred from official education as a physician because of her sex, Cassandra was determined to learn the skills required to become a doctor. That included studying human anatomy, and for that, she required cadavers.
Returning to the graves, she made her selection. Alfred Lumley, born September first, 1801; died September twenty-sixth, 1823. Two days ago Alfred had been a living twenty-two-year-old man, three years younger than herself. Whether or not he’d been healthy, she would soon determine. A pang of sorrow struck her heart. His soul is in heaven, she reminded herself. A mere shell remains. A shell that will help me to aid the living.
She raised the shovel, ready to plunge it into the soft soil. “I am not afraid. I am not.”
“You should be.” A sinister, accented voice pierced her consciousness.
The shovel fell from her nerveless fingers, thudding onto the cold ground.
Cassandra knew that voice; it had the rich, dark cadence that had haunted her dreams since the night she’d first met him. She spun around, the hood of her cloak falling to her shoulders.
Rafael Villar stepped out from behind a mausoleum. The shadows embraced his bronze skin, obscuring the scars on the left side of his face while moonlight highlighted his exotic features on the right.
Known as “the Spaniard,” Villar had been an infamous pugilist in Cheapside despite having only one functioning arm. The eccentric and wealthy Duke of Burnrath was his sponsor. Cassandra had often encountered Villar at Burnrath House when attending the duchess’s literary circles. Right away she’d suspected that there was more to the relationship between Rafael and Their Graces. And she’d been utterly and completely fascinated by him.
When the duke and duchess departed for the Continent to travel, Villar had leased Burnrath House. By all accounts he was rich as a nabob. For the remainder of the Season, Don Villar was all the ton could gossip about. But when months passed without the Spaniard making the slightest attempt to join Society, he was forgotten. Cassandra would have forgotten him as well, if it weren’t for those damned dreams. Now he stood before her in the most unexpected place and at the most inconvenient time.
Good Lord, will he turn me in to the authorities?
She opened her mouth to ask the reason for his presence, but the words caught in her throat when she saw that his amber eyes were glowing like a funeral pyre. His sensuous lips—lips she’d unreasonably dreamed of kissing—drew back to reveal white, even teeth…with two gleaming fangs for incisors.
Before she could scream or flee, Don Villar’s fiery gaze widened, then narrowed in recognition. “You! You’ve been the one disturbing my people?”
“Y-your people?” Cassandra stammered, staring raptly at those sharp fangs. She’d certainly never seen those during their previous encounters. Her heart leaped into her throat in dawning horror. This man was not human.
His lips curled back in a sneer, puckering the scars on the left side of his face. “Don’t play coy with me, Countess.” The word was filled with disdain. “Some of my subordinates reported hunters disturbing their lairs.” He gestured at the mausoleum behind him. “It is hard to fathom that you’re behind this, though I should have guessed. Is that why you befriended the Duchess of Burnrath?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you are going on about. I came here to… Well, it is no concern of yours.” A wave of indignation bolstered her courage. How dare he speak of her most treasured friendship in such a manner? How dare he accuse her of duplicity when he stood before her sporting unnatural teeth and luminescent eyes? And of what exactly was he accusing her? “What does Her Grace have to do with this?” Cassandra took a shaky step back. “And, in the name of heaven, what are you?”
In a blink of an eye, Rafael stood inches from her. With the same impossible speed, he grasped her shoulder, pulling her close against him. Dizziness swarmed her mind at the feel of his firm heat and his intoxicating scent of forbidden spices. His crippled left arm moved lightly around her waist, his fingers delicately brushing across her lower back. The heady combination of rough and gentle made her tremble.
His eyes locked on hers. “I will show you, Countess.”
Then his mouth was on her neck, firm lips caressing the sensitive flesh, somehow more intimate than anything she’d experienced during her ill-fated marriage. Cassandra melted against him, tangling her fingers in his silken hair.
Sharp pain exploded in her throat as his fangs broke her skin. Cassandra cried out and tried to push him away, but his iron-like right arm mercilessly held her immobile. The pain took flight, and drugging pleasure fluttered within her belly. A low moan escaped her throat as she pulled him closer. Liquid desire pulsed between her thighs. Whatever this was, she needed more, craved it with mindless longing.
Rafael pulled away, muttering a foreign curse. “You’re a grave robber?” Lifting his finger to his mouth, he pierced his flesh with one pearly fang and then gently touched the wound on her throat. The soft touch was juxtaposed by his blazing eyes and furious snarl.
She barely heard his words as her eyes locked on those deadly fangs. Cassandra froze as realization shook her to the core. He wiped her neck with a handkerchief. In confirmation of her suspicions, blood spotted the snowy cloth like an accusation.
“Vampire,” she gasped, struggling to breathe. The foundations of her scientific beliefs quaked within her consciousness. Fairy tales were not true, and magic was not real. Yet here he stood, ready to devour her blood and perhaps her soul. Terror gripped her heart like ice.
The creature that should not exist outside of myth nodded. “Yes, but you will not remember the fact.”
His eyes glowed brighter, capturing her gaze. The intensity caused a fresh wave of dizziness, but Cassandra fought it off. The vampire stood like a statue, continuing to stare at her in a most unnerving manner.
After an endless moment, she shook her head and took another wary step back. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Villar blinked and the fire dimmed from his gaze. An explosion of Spanish expletives came out in a growl as he seized her arm. “I apologize, Countess. You’ll have to come with me.”
“C-come with you where?” Cassandra stammered in confusion, trying to pull away. He’d already bitten her and drunk her blood. What more could he want? “Why? And f-for how long?”
“I am taking you to Burnrath House,” Rafael snarled through clenched teeth. “I have no choice but to place you under arrest until I can determine what to do with you.”
Rafe bit back another growl. Madre de Dios, why did the mysterious intruder have to be her? The Countess of Rosslyn was the only mortal in over three centuries to have gotten under his skin, and he still did not know why. And why did she have to be one of the rare individuals immune to mesmerism?
He’d wanted a brief moment to punish her for being a nuisance to him yet again. He’d wanted to punish her, to show her the folly in seeking out a monster, before banishing her memory. It was the worst of luck that the first mortal he’d deliberately revealed himself to was impervious to his power.
“Arrest?” Lady Rosslyn struggled in his grip, her warm flesh slipping beneath his grasp on the sleeve of her cloak, drawing his attention back to the vexing situation at hand. “Are you a constable?”
“Constable? Hardly. I am Lord of this city.” He held her fast.
“Lord? Of all of London? Whatever do you mean?” The countess tried once more to pull away. “And what of my wagon?”
Rafe tugged her closer before she could trip over a gravestone. “Damn it, woman. Devil take your wagon! You fail to grasp the severity of this situation.”
Truly, it would have been a simple matter had he succeeded in clearing the woman’s mind of the memory. Hell, it still would have been simple if the woman hadn’t been her. Not when her sweet, rich taste lay thick on his tongue. Not when her intoxicating scent of rose petals and woman engulfed his senses.
“Well, of course I do not grasp the situation!” Lady Rosslyn exclaimed, maddeningly oblivious to the tentative hold he had on his temper. “You have failed to explain it! First, I had no idea that vampires existed outside fiction. Furthermore, I have no notion why one would arrest me for exhuming a corpse for my studies. I am fully aware that my actions are illegal, but the logic eludes me as to how that should mean anything to you.”
Rafe sucked in a hissing breath through his teeth, biting back a stream of curses. Conversing with humans had never been his strong suit, but talking with Lady Rosslyn was always especially trying. “Your morbid hobby is of no concern to me. I had mistakenly believed you were hunting my people. You’re fortunate that my people didn’t take action themselves. That you weren’t beaten bloody by a mob, your house set aflame!”
Rafe closed his eyes, remembering how Ian’s third-in-command and a gang of other vengeful vampires had done exactly that to a prominent surgeon only three years ago. Ian had been apoplectic with rage. If the man’s wife hadn’t been in the country, she would surely have perished. Ian had punished the mob and issued a law that all suspicious mortals were to be handled only by the Lord of London from then on.
“Morbid?” Cassandra repeated, oblivious to the rest of his words. “You drank my blood only moments ago and you call me morbid?” Her sea-green eyes glared up at him from beneath impossibly long lashes. The captivating contact was broken too soon when she shook her head. “Well, if it is a mistake, then why are you arresting me?”
Ah and what a sweet drink it was. Yet somehow her life and memories had been more potent. Rafe usually closed his mind to his victims’ lives when he fed, but in the case of Lady Rosslyn, he had needed to discover what she was up to.
Lady Rosslyn seemed to have been a very busy woman during the last year. She’d had the daring to apply to Oxford, Cambridge, and Saint Bartholomew’s to master the healing arts. All those establishments had turned her away because of her sex. But she did not give up. Instead, she’d set forth with her studies alone, even robbing graves to learn the secrets of the human body.
Rafe sighed. This evening’s events had all been a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, one that could not be rectified. The Elders would not permit her to leave his presence alive.
“It is forbidden for mortals to know of our kind. I attempted to banish your memory of the encounter, but it appears you are immune to my powers. So now you must come with me until…” He trailed off, strangely reluctant to voice the rest aloud.
“Until when?” Her voice emerged in a frightened whimper.
Rafe closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Unexpected sorrow churned in his gut at the consequence this encounter would bear.
“Until it is decided whether I kill you or Change you into a vampire.”