My eyes took a moment to adjust to the soft, artificial light of the chandeliers after spending hours in the dark dungeons of the duke’s mansion. As the room came into focus, the duchess sat on an antique loveseat upholstered in a red velvet that matched the lining of her high-collared cape.
‘Join me for a drink.’ Her smooth voice carried such an air of authority that I would have been a fool to refuse. Removing the stopper from a crystal decanter, she poured a viscous red liquid into two wine glasses.
The sweet smell of blood drifted across the room and my stomach grumbled. Closing the distance with a few quick strides, I sat beside her and accepted the liquid meal. ‘Thank you, Your Highness.’ Peering into the glass, I marvelled at the warm liquid. ‘How do you keep it fresh without refrigeration?’
‘I mix it with fortified wine and…’ Mischief glimmered in her eyes. ‘I use a little magic.’
The first sip slid down my throat like silk, tasting like heaven. After my second mouthful, a moan slipped out as my blood warmed. ‘This stuff is delicious.’
She grinned. ‘I’m glad you like it. Please drink up. You’ll need your strength.’
Downing the rest with two more gulps, I held my glass out for a refill.
Mirth trickled through the duchess like beads dancing across a glass table. ‘Please allow me to introduce myself properly. My name is Amaryllis, but you may call me Amara in less formal settings such as this. We are to be friends, after all.’ She clinked her glass against mine and the crystal chimed brightly.
My hackles stood up at her familiar tone. ‘What can I do for you, Your Highness?’ The duchess was still a stranger to me, and I was hesitant to let my guard down.
‘It is I who can be of service to you, Hayden.’ She ran her black, glossy fingernails along my denim clad thigh, prompting my semi aroused dick to strain against my jeans.
I narrowed my eyes. ‘I’m flattered Your Highness, but I have a girlfriend.’
Her tinkling laugh tickled my neck, making me aware of her proximity. ‘You misunderstand. I do not mean to keep you as a lover, although I wouldn’t say no if you propositioned me. You have no idea how special you are, Hayden. I doubt Seraphina even knows the extent of your potential. You were just a charity case to her, much like the rest of her lost lambs. If things had gone my way that night, I would have damned you and saved all this trouble.’
‘What are you talking about?’
Amaryllis daintily sipped from her glass before meeting my gaze with golden eyes that bore a remarkable resemblance to Sera’s. I wondered if they were related in some way. Her hand squeezed my leg and she simpered. ‘Do you know much about mages?’
‘Not really,’ I confessed. ‘Sera briefly mentioned their existence and their name suggests they are magic users. That’s about it.’
She nodded. ‘Like you, I remained ignorant of my heritage for much of my human life. It is common for power to lie dormant in our blood and we are none the wiser until our awakening.’
I gasped. ‘Are you saying—’
‘Yes Hayden. You were an unawakened mage, and that power still flows in your veins even though you are now one of the damned. I can teach you how to tap into the well of magic deep down, to bring it to the surface, and harness it however you like.’
I eyed her sceptically. ‘Why? What’s in it for you?’
‘You will be a powerful man one day and I would rather count myself among your allies than your enemies.’
I stared at her with wide eyes. I had not expected such a direct answer. ‘How do I know I can trust you?’
She huffed. ‘You should not trust anyone in our world, Hayden. Everyone has their own agenda, and alliances are always in a state of flux. The sooner you learn to forge your own path and make deals to suit your interests, the better off you will be.’
I had to admit that she had a point. As kind as Sera had been to me, she had kept me in a proverbial darkness dimmer than the duke’s dungeons, spoon feeding me intel in dribs and drabs. A horrid thought occurred to me. Does Sera know about my mystical heritage? Why keep that from me? ‘Okay. You have a deal. Teach me how to access my magic and I promise not use my powers against you.’
‘Are you willing to make a blood oath to seal the deal?’
‘What does that entail?’
‘It is a contract we each sign in our own blood, effectively binding us to our word.’ She sashayed across the room in her glittering ebony gown and opened a mahogany rolltop desk with the click of a finger. Sitting in the high back chair, she picked up a quill pen and pricked her finger with it. Standing behind her, I watch in fascination as she scrawled calligraphy across a parchment page using her own blood as ink.
I, Amaryllis Hemlock, hereby swear to teach Hayden Black how to access his magic. I also promise not to harm him so long as he does not act against my best interests.
Rising to her feet, she gestured for me to take the seat. ‘If you agree to my terms, write your own beneath them, then we each sign at the bottom of the page to seal it.’
Perching at the edge of the chair, I studied her words carefully, reading between the lines. She is not asking anything of me specifically, but there is still some ambiguity in the second clause. ‘What do you mean “act against your best interest?”’
‘Oh you know—all the usual stuff. Anything that would be considered a crime against me under human law.’
Grabbing the pen, I braced myself for the sting as it bit into the tip of my left index finger. I dipped the nib into the blood pooling on my skin and printed neatly on the paper:
I, Hayden Black, hereby swear not to use my magic powers against Amaryllis Hemlock if she teaches me how to access my magic.
I signed it before standing and handing it to her.
‘Excellent.’ She scribbled her own signature, placed the page on the desk, and locked it. ‘Let me show you to your room.’ She waved toward the door before approaching it. ‘I will begin training you after you get some proper bedrest.’
‘You won’t let me leave?’
Amaryllis led me into a long hallway. ‘You are my guest, Hayden. Feel free to come and go as you please. I just figure lodging here will be more convenient. Besides…’
I followed her along the corridor, keeping pace with the click of her heels against the marble. Movement in my peripheral vision drew my attention to a crow hopping along the casement of an open window. As soon as I made eye contact with the bird, it fluttered its wings and flew off into the pre-dawn sky.
The duchess paused next to a closed door and grinned. ‘My husband is less likely to look for an escaped prisoner within his own house.’
I froze. ‘You didn’t clear my name first?’
‘I have little sway over the duke’s business, but I will see what I can do,’ she promised sweetly, swinging the door open. ‘Make yourself at home. If you need anything, ring the bell by your bed and one of my ladies will attend to you.’
Crossing the threshold, I surveyed the suite that could have fit two of Sera’s penthouse apartments in it. I glanced back over my shoulder to question Amaryllis, but she had already disappeared. Why did she put me up in such luxurious accommodation? An enormous canopy bed with red and black drapes sat flush against the far wall. Exploring the space, I found two adjacent rooms: a bathroom fit for a king, and a dressing room complete with walk-in closet. A vast array of suits and casual outfits hung from the rails. Upon further inspection, I noticed they were all in my size. Huh. Spooky. How long has the duchess been planning to bring me here?
Pushing those unsettling thoughts aside, I returned to the bathroom and started filling the spa bath. Nothing like a soak in the tub to wash my worries away. Bubbles massaged my back and the tension seeped out of my muscles, dissipating into the warm water.
The temperature had turned tepid by the time I pulled the plug and stepped onto the plush matt. Odd that my skin hasn’t pruned considering how long I bathed. Shrugging it off as another perk of vampirism, I wrapped myself in an Egyptian cotton bath sheet, and sauntered into the bedroom. When I reached the bed, I found a glass of blood waiting for me, along with a note in the duchess’ cursive script: “Sweet dreams Hayden.”
After drying off, I slipped beneath the quilted covers and groaned at the feel of the silk sheets gliding against my naked flesh. Rereading the note, I chuckled. Amaryllis had all but admitted to doping the drink on my nightstand. Still, if it helped me sleep, what harm could it do? I guzzled the delicious concoction, detecting chocolate undertones and made a mental note to ask her for the recipe one day.
Sleep whisked me away soon after my head hit the pillow, carrying me into a fantasy world where I dreamed of curvaceous women writhing between red silk.