I LEAPT, DRAWING MY FEET UP BENEATH ME, AS the seven-foot quarterstaff smashed into the flagstones where I had been standing a half second before. Landing in a crouch, I sprang back up, groaning with the effort, and swung my own weapon over my head. Sweat dripped into my eye, blinding me for one stinging second before my reflexes took over and forced me into motion.
A shaft of light from a window far overhead illuminated the oaken staff as I arced it down toward my enemy’s legs. He swept sideways, sending my weapon flying through the air. It crashed with a wooden clang against the stone wall behind me.
Defenseless, I scrambled for a sword that lay a few feet away. But before I could grab it, I was snatched off my feet in a powerful grasp and crushed against my assailant’s chest. He held me a few inches off the ground as I kicked and flailed, adrenaline pumping like quicksilver through my body.
“Don’t be such a sore loser, Kate,” chided Vincent. Leaning forward, he gave me a firm kiss on the lips.
The fact that he was shirtless was quickly eroding my hard-won concentration. And the warmth from his bare chest and arms was turning my fight-tensed muscles to buttery goo. Struggling to maintain my resolve, I growled, “That is totally cheating,” and managed to work my hand free enough to punch him in the arm. “Now let me go.”
“If you promise not to kick or bite.” He laughed and set me on the ground. Sea blue eyes flashed with humor from under the waves of black hair that fell around his face.
He grinned and touched my cheek, with an expression like he was seeing me for the first time. Like he couldn’t believe that I was standing there with him in all my 3-D humanness. An expression that said he thought he was the lucky one.
I rearranged my smile into the best glare I could muster. “I’m making no promises,” I said, wiping the hair that had escaped my ponytail out of my eyes. “You would deserve a bite for beating me again.”
“That was much better, Kate,” came a voice from behind me. Gaspard handed me my fallen staff. “But you need to be a bit more flexible with your hold. When Vincent’s staff hits yours, roll with the movement.” He demonstrated, using Vincent’s weapon. “If you’re stiff, the staff will go flying.” We walked through the steps in slow motion.
When he saw that I had mastered the sequence, my teacher straightened. “Well, that’s good enough for sword and quarterstaff today. Do you want to move on to something less strenuous? Throwing stars, perhaps?”
I held my hands up in surrender, still panting from the exercise. “That’s enough fight training for today. Thanks, Gaspard.”
“As you wish, my dear.” He pulled a rubber band from behind his head, releasing his porcupine hair, which sprang back into its normal state of disarray. “You definitely have natural talent,” he continued, as he returned the weapons to their hooks on the walls of the underground gym-slash-armory, “since you’re doing this well after just a few lessons. But you do need to work on your stamina.”
“Um, yeah. I guess lying around reading books all day doesn’t do much for physical endurance,” I said, leaning forward to catch my breath with my hands on my knees.
“Natural talent,” crowed Vincent, sweeping my sweaty self up into his arms and pacing across the room, holding me like a trophy. “Of course my girlfriend’s got it. In truckloads! How else could she have slain a giant evil zombie, single-handedly saving my undead body?”
I laughed as he set me down in front of the freestanding shower and adjoining sauna. “I don’t mind taking all the glory, but I think the fact that your volant spirit was possessing me had just a tiny bit to do with it.”
“Here you go.” Vincent handed me a towel and kissed the top of my head. “Not that I don’t think you’re totally hot when you’re dripping with sweat,” he whispered, giving me a flirty wink. Those butterflies that suddenly sprang into action in my chest? I was beginning to consider them permanent residents.
“In the meantime, I’ll finish your job and take out that pesky nineteenth-century weapons master. En garde!” he yelled, as he flicked a sword from off the wall and turned.
Gaspard was already waiting for him with a giant spiked mace. “You’ll have to do better than that measly steel blade to make a dent in me,” he quipped, waving Vincent forward with two fingertips.
I closed the shower door behind me, turned the lever to start the water, and watched as the powerful streams spat forth from the showerhead, sending a cloud of steam up around me. My aches and pains flew away under the steady pressure of the hot water.
Incredible, I thought for the thousandth time, as I considered this parallel world I was moving in. A few Paris blocks away I led a completely normal life with my sister and grandparents. And here I was sword fighting with dead guys—okay, “revenants,” so not really dead. Since I’d moved to Paris, this was the only place I felt I fit in.
I listened to the noises of the fight coming from outside my pinewood haven and thought of the reason I was here. Vincent.
I had met him last summer. And fallen hard. But after discovering what he was, and that being a revenant meant dying over and over again, I had turned my back on him. After my own parents’ death the year before, being alone seemed safer than having a constant reminder of that pain.
But Vincent made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He promised not to die. At least, not on purpose. Which goes against every fiber of his un-being. Revenants’ compulsion to die when saving their precious human “rescues” is more enticing and powerful than a drug addiction. But Vincent thinks he can hold out. For me.
And I, for one, hope he can. I don’t want to cause him pain, but I know my own limitations. Rather than grieve his loss over and over again, I would leave. Walk away. We both know it. And, though Vincent is technically dead, I’ll venture to say that this is the only solution we can both live with.
“I’M HEADING UP,” I SHOUTED.
“Be right there,” answered Vincent, glancing briefly to where I stood on the stairs. Gaspard took the opportunity to smash the sword from his hands, and it went clattering across the floor as Vincent raised his hands in defeat.
“Never . . .”
“. . . take your eye from the fight.” Vincent finished Gaspard’s sentence for him. “I know, I know. But you’ve got to admit, Kate is more than a bit distracting.”
Gaspard smiled wryly.
“To me,” Vincent clarified.
“Just don’t let her distract you from saving her life,” Gaspard responded, placing his toe under the hilt of the fallen sword and, with a quick movement, flicking it up in the air toward Vincent.
“This is the twenty-first century, Gaspard,” Vincent chuckled, catching the grip of the flying sword in his right hand. “Under your tutelage, Kate will be just as capable of saving mine.” He grinned at me, lifting an eyebrow suggestively. I laughed.
“I agree,” Gaspard admitted, “but only if she can catch up with your half century of fighting experience.”
“I’m working on it,” I called as I closed the door behind me, blocking out the earsplitting clash of metal that resonated from the resumption of their fight.
I pushed through a swinging door into a large, airy kitchen and breathed in the bready aroma of freshly baked pastry. Jeanne was bent over one of the slate gray granite counters. Nominally the cook and housekeeper, she was more like a house mom. Following the example of her own mother and grandmother, she had cared for the revenants for decades. Her shoulders shook slightly as she put the finishing flourishes on a chocolate cake. I touched her arm and she turned to face me, revealing tears that she tried unsuccessfully to blink back.
“Jeanne, are you okay?” I breathed, knowing that she wasn’t.
“Charlotte and Charles are like my own children.” Her voice cracked.
“I know,” I said, putting an arm around her ample waist and leaning my head on her shoulder. “But they’re not leaving forever. Jean-Baptiste said it was just until Charles gets his head sorted out. How long could that take?”
Jeanne straightened and we looked at each other, a silent message passing between us. A long time, if ever. The boy was seriously messed up.
My own feelings about him were mixed. He had always acted antagonistically toward me, but after Charlotte had explained why, I couldn’t help but pity him.
As if reading my thoughts, Jeanne jumped to his defense. “It’s not really his fault. He didn’t mean to endanger everyone, you know.”
“He’s just more sensitive than the others,” she said, bending back over her cake and concentrating on the placement of a sugar-spun flower. “It’s their lifestyle. Dying over and over again for us humans and then having to leave us to our fate takes its toll. He’s only fifteen, for goodness’ sake.”
I smiled sadly. “Jeanne, he’s eighty.”
“Peu importe,” she said, making a motion like she was swatting a ball backward over her shoulder. “I think the ones who die younger take it harder. My grandmother told me that one of their Spanish kindred did the same thing. He was fifteen too. He asked the numa to destroy him, like Charles did. But that time the poor thing succeeded.”
Jeanne noticed me shudder at this mention of the revenants’ ancient enemies, and though no one else was in the kitchen, she lowered her voice. “I say it’s better than the other extreme. Some—very few, mind you—get so jaded by their role in human life and death that their rescues become only a means of survival. They don’t care about the humans they save, only about relieving their compulsion. I would prefer that Charles be overly sensitive than coldhearted.”
“That’s why I think that getting away will be good for him,” I reassured her. “It will give him some distance from Paris, and the people he has saved.” Or not saved, I remembered, thinking of the fatal boat accident that had set off Charles’s downward spiral. After failing to save a little girl’s life, he had begun acting strangely. He ended up trying to commit revenant suicide, unwittingly allowing an attack on his kindred. “Jean-Baptiste said they could visit. I’m sure we’ll see them soon.”
Jeanne nodded, hesitantly acknowledging my words.
“It’s a beautiful cake,” I said, changing the subject. I scraped a bit of icing off the platter and popped it into my mouth. “Mmm, and yummy, too!”
Jeanne batted me away with her spatula, grateful to reassume her mother-hen role. “And you’re going to ruin it if you keep taking scoops out of the side,” she laughed. “Now go see if Charlotte needs some help.”
“This isn’t a funeral, people. It’s New Year’s Eve. And the twins’ moving party. So let’s celebrate!” Ambrose’s baritone voice reverberated through the pearl gray wood-paneled ballroom, drawing amused chuckles from the crowd of elegantly dressed revelers. A hundred candles glistened off the chandeliers’ crystal prisms, casting flecks of reflected light around the room better than any disco ball could.
Tables along the edges of the room were heaped with delicacies, tiny chocolate- and coffee-flavored éclairs, melt-on-your-tongue macarons in a half-dozen pastel colors, mountains of chocolate truffles. After the enormous feast that we had just devoured, I didn’t have an inch of space inside for these masterpieces of French pastry. Which sucked. Because if I had known these were still to come, I would have skimped on the bread and skipped the cheese course.
Across the room from me, Ambrose tapped an iPod nestled inside a large speaker system. I grinned as Jazz Age music trumpeted from the sound system. Though the native Mississippian listened to contemporary music on his headphones, he had a soft spot for the music of his youth. As the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong electrified the dancers, Ambrose grabbed Charlotte and began shimmying her around the room, her creamy complexion and short blond hair the mirror opposite of his brown skin and cropped black hair.
They made a striking couple. If only they were a couple. Which—Charlotte had recently confided in me—was something that she longed for. And which Ambrose for some reason unbeknownst to me (and maybe to himself) did not. But his brotherly affection for her was as obvious as the doting smile on his face as he swung her around and dipped her low.
“Looks like fun. Let’s have a go,” whispered a voice inches from my ear. I turned to see Jules standing behind me. “How’s your dance card look?”
“Double-check your century, Jules,” I reminded him. “No dance cards.”
Jules shrugged and gave me his most flirtatious smile.
“But if there were, shouldn’t my boyfriend have the first dance?” I teased him.
“Not if I fought him for the honor,” he joked, throwing a glance across the room at Vincent, who was watching us with a half smile. He winked at me and returned to his conversation with Geneviève, a strikingly beautiful revenant who I had once been jealous of before finding out that she was happily married.
Counting her, there were a few dozen revenants attending tonight’s party who were not members of La Maison. (No one referred to it by its official name, the Hôtel Grimod de la Reynière, hôtel in this case meaning ridiculously huge, extravagant mansion.) Jean-Baptiste’s residence was home to our venerable host, Gaspard, Jules, Ambrose, Vincent, and, until tomorrow, Charles and Charlotte. After their move to Jean-Baptiste’s house near Cannes, two newcomers would arrive to take their place.
“Okay. To avoid World War Three, I guess I can give the first dance to you. But if Vincent tries to cut in, you better be ready to draw your sword.”