As Shadows Fade Page 2

Max had indeed met Duchess Farnham, one of Victoria’s honorary aunts and a bosom friend of her mother, when the duchess had tried her hand at staking a vampire during a visit in Rome. That vampire had been the Conte Regalado, and had been intent on wooing Victoria’s mother. Victoria still smiled at the memory of the duchess brandishing a stake the thickness of her wrist.

Although, at the time, she’d been doing everything but smiling.

“The duchess is hosting a dance tonight, and of course I dare not miss it. Especially now that the new Marquess of Rockley has suddenly disappeared. All of London is abuzz with that choice bit of gossip,” she said.

Upon his arrival from America to assume his title, Victoria’s deceased husband’s heir had become the victim of vampires. An undead impostor had been introduced into the ton in his place, and had later met the pointed end of Victoria’s stake. As there was no body to be found, the new Rockley had been given up as mysteriously disappeared-a fact that both intrigued and worried the peerage.

“Is Vioget keeping you waiting? No doubt he is still fussing with a new knot on his neck cloth.” Max sounded supremely bored.

Victoria made a great show of pulling on the lacy shawl that would do little good against a chill in the air-but it was a hot, humid evening in early August and she needn’t worry about being uncomfortable. “Oh, no. Sebastian isn’t my escort this evening.”


Though she was turned half away, Victoria felt Max’s gaze score over her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his expression. He was decidedly displeased.

She wasn’t certain if it was because he’d noticed her gown or because Sebastian wasn’t attending her. In any event, it didn’t matter. A displeased Max was exactly what she wanted.

“Indeed.” She started toward the door. “Good evening, Max.”

“Surely you don’t plan to attend without an escort.”

She paused, then glanced back at him. “Are you volunteering for the honor? You’d have to change…” She raised a brow, looking at him dubiously. “And you might even have to dance.”

“Where’s Vioget? Foolish of him to allow you to go alone.”

“Ah, yes, the man should be protecting his interests, shouldn’t he?” Victoria replied coolly. That had been Max’s plan: that she should be with Sebastian-in all ways-because, as a born Venator, Sebastian would be able to understand the dual sides of her life and also assist her in the fight against vampires.

Max himself had been one of the most fearsome of Venators, called by choice and not by the blood of the Gardella family legacy, as the other Venators were. But he’d given up his powers in order to destroy a rising demon who threatened to take over Rome.

By relinquishing his powers, Max had also severed the thrall that Lilith had imposed upon him years ago. He’d been freed of her influence, but she was still obsessed with Max. She was certain to be after him again, after she recovered from her recent setback at the hands of Victoria and the other Venators.

But it wasn’t so much himself that Max worried about, but Victoria, as he’d admitted during a moment of weakness.

She’ll be after me again… and again. And she’ll use you, Victoria. She’ll use you to get to me. I wish I could lock you up, and know you’d always be safe… and I know that can’t bloody well happen. But I won’t be part of it. I won’t make it any damn worse than it has to be. I can’t do it.

Angry with what she perceived as an illogical argument, Victoria had called him a coward then-a word she could never have imagined attributing to Max. But to her surprise, he’d accepted it. Owned it. And walked away.

The last thing he said to her was an acknowledgment of her insult:

When it comes to risking your life, yes, yes, godammit, yes, I am, Victoria. I’m a damn bloody coward.

And now here they were. Two weeks later. Stalemated.

“Good night, Max,” she said, opening the door and stepping out into the balmy evening. Her carriage waited, the footman holding its door open. She didn’t look back as the servant helped her into the vehicle, but she felt the weight of Max’s stare on her back as if he’d been there, touching her himself.

The Duchess Farnham knew how to give a party, and the ton lapped it up. Even when her event was merely a dance instead of a ball, she did it with style and elegance. And when the duchess gave a dance, there were, of course, fewer invitations extended, making them all the more sought after and bragged upon.

Thus when Victoria arrived at Farnham Hall, her sleek midnight blue carriage waited in a long snaking line of arrivals, crossing in front of another long snaking line of carriages passing by the residence in hopes of catching a glimpse of who had been gifted with an invitation this time. The stagnant air and summer heat in the enclosed carriage made her feel sleepy and bored, and she tugged open one of the small windows.

She didn’t feel odd about arriving without an escort, for she was as close to the duchess-hence the affectionate, if informal, nickname of Duchess Winnie-as if she were her niece. And also, Victoria’s mother, Lady Melly, would already be in attendance, likely with her own escort and longtime beau, Lord Jellington.

Lady Melly, Duchess Winnie, and their other bosom friend, Lady Petronilla, were fairly inseparable, their heads always together, flinging gossip about with great abandon and plotting weddings as if the world were about to end. The three of them were probably the most upset in all of London about the disappearance of the new Lord Rockley, for they had been playing matchmaker with him and Victoria in hopes that she might drop the “dowager” from her title, and become simply “the marchioness” again.

Sebastian had offered to come with her tonight, but Victoria had thought it best to decline. He was well aware of how she felt about Max, but in his words, “I don’t plan to be a gentleman about this, Victoria. He doesn’t want you-he doesn’t want anyone –and I do .” And then he gathered her up into his arms for one of those hot kisses that made her knees weak and her breathing unsteady.

Even now, the memory had the ability to warm her cheeks, making the carriage feel more stifling. By the time Victoria alighted from her vehicle, the mugginess had drawn forth a little line of moisture over her lip. She dabbed at it with a handkerchief and slipped past the butler into the side foyer of Farnham Hall.

There was no need for her to be introduced and attention called to her. Victoria attended this dance because she could not disappoint Duchess Winnie. She’d make an appearance, then leave.

Despite the heavy heat of the summer night and the crush of people, the ballroom was fairly comfortable, and the reason was immediately evident: a row of six French doors had been opened to the garden, and an entire company of servants had been positioned throughout the room with large, palm-leaf fans, which they conducted vigorously.

“At last! I thought you’d never arrive, Victoria,” said Lady Melly, swooping upon her with curling gloved fingers. “The Earl of Tretherington is here, and word is, he’s in search of a wife.”

“Tretherington?” Victoria echoed, looking at her mother with a raised brow. “Mother, please. I’m not about to be courted by a man old enough to be my grandfather.”

“But, Victoria,” Melly continued, “Tretherington House! It’s grander than Westminster, or so they-”

“If you’re so enamored with Tretherington House, why don’t you set your eyes on him yourself?” asked Victoria. “Then you can be Lady T. You might just as well, Mama, for I don’t believe Jellington will ever come up to snuff.” She rarely called her mother that informal name, but something prompted her to really look at her parent tonight. Perhaps Lady Melly’s incessant desire to see Victoria married-again-stemmed from her own loneliness of widowhood.

Her mother was a fine-looking woman for her age. With the same dark, curling hair she’d bestowed upon her daughter and a more curvaceous figure, not to mention a more outgoing personality, she’d had her own share of admirers since her husband’s death. One of them, in fact, had been the vampire that Duchess Winnie had been stalking with her ungainly stake that night in Rome.

Victoria had relieved the duchess of her hunt, slaying the Conte Regalado herself. And shortly thereafter, she’d used her aunt Eustacia’s special gold medallion to relieve Lady Melly, Duchess Winnie, and Lady Nilly of their memories of that particular occasion.

“I?” Lady Melly looked as though Victoria had suggested she dye her hair green. “But of course not. And, to be sure,” she added coyly, looking at her beau, who was eyeing her from across the room, “Jellington has already proposed to me. Six times.”

Victoria gaped at her. “Why on earth haven’t you accepted? We could be planning your wedding.”

Melly tapped Victoria lightly with her folded fan. “But it’s so much more fun to plan yours, my dear. What about Mr. Killington? You already have a title, and he-”

“Has no hair, and breath so bad I’d swear it’s rotting his teeth. No, thank you, Mother,” Victoria replied, back to the formality.

“You aren’t serious about that Monsieur Vioget, are you? He hasn’t asked you to marry him, has he?” Melly’s horror had gone from dying her hair green to shaving it all off and dashing through Almack’s naked.

“As a matter of fact, he has,” Victoria said breezily. “Excuse me, Mother. I think I see…” And she let her voice trail off as she hurried away, grinning at her mother’s dismay.

To be fair, Sebastian hadn’t actually asked her to marry him. But that didn’t bother Victoria one whit. After what had happened with Phillip, who, like most of London, had been unaware that vampires existed-let alone of his wife’s calling as a Venator-Victoria had realized that she would never marry again. She couldn’t put someone she loved in danger as she had done to Phillip-although men like Sebastian and Max were already in danger by virtue of who they were.

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