Mooncusser Cove

A Shadow Lover Tale

Darragha Foster

 

Prologue

The moon had never been their ally. They cursed it. Condemned it. Loathed its reflection on the sea and hated its thieving light. In the years before the cathartic wrecking of the Sea Shadow, moonlit nights were simply restless nights without profit. After the wrecking, bright nights were hungry nights. Pervasive, bone-rattling nights of hunger with pangs so desperate and so deep that death and an eternity in Hell seemed less terrible.

The kin, the Mooncusser clan, scourge of the coast, land pirates and scallywags, had clung to the heels of the first wave of Puritans to settle the New World and had been long feared for their guile and cleverness. But, too, they were God-fearing early-American Christians. Though called “lazy” by the Puritans for their trickster’s ways, they tithed, owned front pews in the sanctuary, and they lived strong, moral lives—as moral as could be for pirates, that is.

Marriage vows were held sacred within the clan. Children were baptized, and men of God were respected and left unmolested should they be brave enough, or daft enough, to wander the beach of the kin. Slavery was not tolerated. Most, though certainly not all, seafaring men drawn into Mooncusser Cove on dark nights by the clan’s bright fire were given an opportunity to work and profit from their wrecking before being ushered from life at the point of a sword. The choice to live or the choice to die saw several good men change professions over the centuries the kin ruled the beach.

Theirs was a mixed lineage. As diverse as the melting pot America eventually came to be. Egyptian, Native American and Eastern European bloods married and added their flavors to the stew of the kin. Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Chinese flowering tendrils of rich heritage found their way onto the clan’s family tree. From seafaring Frenchmen to Ivory Coast Africans destined for Southern plantations to Basque Jews escaping persecution by the Church, they all mixed their passion and seed with the kin. What man could say nay to a wild beachling woman wanting a new husband, be it for love or convenience?

The kin lit their bonfires to fool and wreck the lost, the storm-ravaged and the unwary. One dark night the Sea Shadow had been grounded by the lure of their fire. The captain of said vessel had been wrecked, but had not been a fool, nor had he been human. This became frighteningly apparent when the clan’s leader slit the throat of the powdered-wigged buffoon wearing captain’s brass. There’d been no spray of blood nor muffled death cry.

The captain did make a verbal response to the bite of the land-pirate’s blade against his throat, however. And it was most certainly the last sound a Mooncusser should ever hear from a wrecked ship and dying crew. Laughter. The hearty laughter of a master of men and slave to none. It heralded an eerie stillness on the beach. It penetrated and pierced them. It was an unnatural harbinger of an evil yet to embrace the beach.

The clan’s lead man died where he stood, a look of complete bewilderment on his face as he toppled over the railing of the shoaled ship. The other men held their blades aloft, unable to wield them, looking much like statues of heroic warriors. The captain of the Sea Shadow had a great and terrible power over them all.

He spoke to the clan with a thick accent. Spanish, perhaps. “Wreck me, will you, foul beachlings? Know you not with whom you tangle?”

When the unholy captain waded ashore, the second man of the clan greeted him with a pistol in one hand and cutlass in the other. “What manner of unclean monster are you that bleeds not in the wake of a blade’s bite?”

“I am God to you!” the captain stormed.

The women crossed themselves at the blasphemy. The second man of the clan, Hezekiah Adaire, put more stock in his pistol than in his crucifix. “Only a man would boast so, and if a man, you can die!” he spat.

He fired. The shot struck the captain dead center.

The captain again laughed. It was a haunting, gut-wrenching, ear-shattering din. “You can’t kill me. You may have wrecked my ship, but I can get another—nay—I am compelled to get another. You may have subdued my crew, but there are always men ready to set sail if offered enough coin, grog and belly warmers.” He paused. “In fact, my comfort woman died mid-point in our voyage. We tossed her overboard, and now she’s whore to the fishes. I’ll take one of your women to replace her.” He scanned the high ground where a dozen or so women and girls had gathered. “I’ll take the young one holding my first mate’s boot in her hand. She looks fresh enough to last a voyage or two.”

Hezekiah Adaire postured aggressively. “By God, you will not.”

The captain smiled. “I already told you, I am God. I’ll take that girl the night of the next new moon. Have her ready for me.”

It was Vesper he wanted. Vesper Highgate-Adaire. Daughter of the now-deceased leader of the clan. Thirteen and comely, with suitors aplenty but no mind to marry, she knew what the captain wanted of her. She was no stranger to the ways of men and women.

She dropped the sturdy leather boot she’d removed from a sailor’s corpse onto the sand. “I’ll take no part in your seafaring debauch, sir.”

The captain chuckled. “Of course, you will.”

“I’ll go in her stead,” Vesper’s mother said, her voice barely wavering. “She is a child, and a child should not be subjected to the whims of a sailor.”

“And yet this child has been subjected to murderous acts of piracy as a thieving beachling. She looks of age to me. She has the comely demeanor of a young woman about to come into full bloom. I see her little upturned buppies peeking out at me. What a time I’ll have wagging my tail between those mounds of glory, I tell you! You needn’t worry, mother. What we’ll do with her is no worse than what will happen to her when she’s married off to one of her own sotted kin.”

“My daughter will not become bed warmer to the Beast.”

“Beast? You flatter me.” The captain laughed. “I was once human. I had a wife and a son and dined at the tables of Europe’s royals and heads of state. I was a gambling man. I was a passionate man. I loved the company of women and the taste of wine from their lips. My passions condemned me when I lost a great wager. I cheated. And I was punished. I am a restless shade of what I once was—driven to sail the oceans of the world. I cannot die. Nor can I truly live. If I were the Beast, I am certain I’d have the power to end my suffering. Now, give me the girl on the new moon, and molest not the crew I send to make repairs. Return that which you have taken—all of it. The boots, the sailcloth, the brass fixtures down to the smallest nail. Do these things, and I shall not share my curse with your clan. Take anything from my ship, hinder her repairs or fail to bring the girl to me upon my return twenty-eight days hence, then you and yours shall suffer the Shadow’s dark blessings for all time. Or at least until you’ve repaid your debt to me. This, I promise.”

The Mooncusser clan didn’t believe him. The man failed to bleed out after having his throat cut, and they didn’t believe him.

Vesper had believed every word. She saw the curse smoldering in the captain’s eyes barely hidden behind the fire he had stoked for her. The non-reaction of her kin, she realized later, must have been the curse already working its powers upon them. How could they ignore a command of the waking dead? How could they not mourn the loss of her father? It seemed all their souls died that night. To save the kin from a living Hell, she made up her young mind to sail when the captain returned.

Her world collapsed when Hezekiah defiantly torched the wreckage. Her father’s body burnt with it, and the fire lit up the sky with frightening, twisted blue flames.

She wished more than once over the centuries that she could have taken a grand leap of faith and been consumed in that fire.

The burning opened the floodgate of the captain’s curse upon the kin. She saw it in the flames. She tasted the clan’s new needs upon her lips. The aroma of restless flesh and blood filled her lungs as the days passed. It was Eighteen Hundred Seventy-Seven, and the beginning of their great suffering. There was terrible anguish as the truth of their new unclean needs became overwhelmingly apparent. Nothing would fill their bellies. Dire, unending hunger led them like a cruel taskmaster. It was pervasive and horrible. It nearly did them all in. By broken heart, shame and suicide, the clan floundered in the darkness before coming to terms with their lot. Some starved to death rather than embrace the cannibalism forced upon them.

But, desperate hunger can move even the pious to act against their upbringing.

They embraced their new life as Shadow Lovers. Incubi. Succubae. Land pirates turned hungry demon-spirits.

By blood or seed,

We need to feed.

The women always fed first.

Wrecked sailors were men with men’s needs. It was easy enough to coax a kiss or fondle from them as the kin came to their rescue with warm blankets and bottles of grog. Spiders inviting wounded flies to rest in their webs. Then, with those sailors reeling from the blood-poisoning of a Mooncusser woman’s sting, the men folk of the clan would come to feed.

The clan, and each of them for all time, became accursed beasts, feeding on the souls of others by way of energies best left expended only in the marriage bed or upon the very life-blood of a sailor hoping to find a safe port at the tip of the flame, not a cutlass or pistol.

Fearful of eternal damnation and shunned from the Sacraments of the Church, others did what they needed to do to quell their hunger before retreating into feverish prayers, desperate to invoke God’s forgiveness. But when the skies grew dark, and the moon failed to glow, prayer beads were set aside. Thus it was for hundreds of years.

The clan continued.

True it was that as wreckers and land pirates they needed to keep prying eyes away, but after the Sea Shadow stained their shore, the need for secrecy became dire.

The wealthy often employ bodyguards. It was no different for the Mooncussers.

Smart men, men with strong backs and quick minds, men who saw gold in the vision of the clan, pledged loyalty to the beachlings and became their protectors. Their Paladins. It was a blood oath, and duty passed from father to son, and sometimes even a manly girl-child with no suitors followed the call. So long as the kin were protected, it mattered not if their Paladin wore skirts or breeches.

When sails gave way to steam and their fires were dimmed by the glow of a lighthouse, their plundering land-pirate ways were abandoned. Their once exciting and romantic deeds of pirating wrecks along the shoreline became legends and bed-time stories. But legends die hard, and even then, they still need to eat.

* * * *

For decades Vesper harbored the dream that the captain would return. She would then go with him willingly and beg him to remove the curse of the Shadow Lover from her kin. If only she had stepped forward the night of the wreck, her family would be in God’s hands instead of wandering the earth to suckle at the teat of humanity like parasites.

Her sisters, Lauds, Terce, Sext, Nonne, Matins and Vigil, had moved away from the shore in Nineteen Forty-Two, choosing to live nomadic, gypsy lives rather than wait for the region to become so steeped with their venom that their secret would no longer be safe. With them, the last Paladin had fled.

Vesper scanned paranormal sites periodically, looking for men or women who claimed to have been accosted by an Incubus or a Succubus in the night. She read tabloids and newsstand rags—as sensationalized truth was still truth. She hoped, someday, to see her family again. She hoped they would return to their ancestral home—Mooncusser Cove. Though she did not know their whereabouts, she had a plan to make it safe for her kin to return. Once it was safe for them to return—the necessary conditions having been met—she’d find them all. Somehow.

Chapter One

Dark of the moon, March fifteen. Vesper loved dark nights. She twisted her insanely curly black hair into a knot at the back of her head and turned her alabaster face with its dark rose lips and steel eyes into the breeze off the bay. She loved the way the salt air tickled her nose and caressed her cheeks with its chilly embrace.

It was the Ides of March. An ominous day in history, and a damned fine night for Chinese take-out.

Since her meal consisted of the man behind the wheel of the delivery car more than the contents of the square take-out containers with their little metal handles, she hoped the cookie she had to crack tonight had a nice, long fortune. Jin Park had driven her and her order home last time she craved fried rice. Lovely, delicious Jin. She relished memory of her last meal from Lucky Panda. She’d had her fill that night. Jin—sweet, delectable Jin—she imagined she was the biggest tipper he’d ever had. He’d given her a pretty big tip, too. The powerful surge of energy from his orgasm had been dessert to her meal of Chinese take-out.

Her own climax, though refreshing, had been bittersweet. She loathed serial sexuality and her immortal immorality. She longed for more simple, more innocent times.

Sex wasn’t love to her. She enjoyed it, of course. But when push came to shove, in a very physical and literal sense, sex was simply a necessary evil. She longed for the days when men’s sexual energies marched before them like a shield at the mere sight of a woman’s leg. She relished those early American years when a bit of shoulder, an upturned wrist, an ankle or an exposed calf caused men to harden and exude sexual pheromones. Those were the nights when taking nourishment had been as easy as breathing. Times changed as the years … as the centuries … passed.

Today, it took more. Modern desensitization by way of television, movie and Internet called for more than just seduction. Too often, the act, itself, was all that would release the necessary pheromonal energies of a man. The chemical reactions.

She liked teenaged boys. Teasing or flirting with them was all the effort needed to get a decent meal of their potent, fresh, sexual energy. Old men, too. Old men just needed a flash of breast or a smoldering glance to radiate a bit of carnality. In those rare, but blissful moments, all she had to do to eat was breathe.

Or, she could take blood.

Drink human blood.

Fresh, living, warm, coppery blood.

Blood would suffice.

Promiscuity had never been a Mooncusser way. The teasing before the bite, yes. But never had any of them shtupped wantonly. Unless driven to madness by the curse.

She’d meant to take blood the night Jin first came to her door. That had not occurred, unfortunately. She’d been lonely, horny and hungry. The unholy trinity caused by the curse.

Lonely. Lustful. Insatiate.

A dangerous time to set the bait.

She could have just stolen a drink from a vein, but not while languishing in the clutches of the unholy trinity. She’d been compelled to seduce him, just as the captain of the Sea Shadow was compelled to sail the oceans of the world desperately trying to stay ahead of his own sufferings.

Jin wasn’t the only resident of the Coomb to have been drained of sexual energy or a little blood by her on a dark night. There had been one thousand seven hundred sixteen new moons and countless starless nights since her birth. In that span of time, she’d breathed in the energy, one way or another, of most of the male residents of Marshes Coomb, going back several generations. What she left in her wake after taking a villager to supper was good for their wives, too.

She was the local siren—the mysterious Lady of the Beach—the ghost of the coast. Cape Mooncusser’s demoness. The stuff of myth and legend and nightmares. She was the unspoken word on the tip of the villagers’ tongues. The fleeting dream image of chaotic passion leaving a morning erection for the Mrs. to contend with. The unfulfilled tingling of a woman’s fancy and the angst every teenager felt after stopping the naughtiness in the backseat of daddy’s car before things went too far.

She knew each resident of the Coomb intimately, but they could never quite remember her. To them, she was a recurring dream that had leapt from pillow to pillow and generation to generation for over a hundred years.

She liked to think of herself as a buxom Frankenstein’s Monster. When they figured out who she really was—when one bright lad saw through the veil of forgetfulness she shed, she would be feared, misunderstood and attacked with rakes and pitchforks by torchlight. Whether she fought or went into hiding depended, of course, upon whether or not she’d just done her nails. She had no desire to break a nail battling incoherent villagers with an axe to grind. In her back.

Someday, she knew, they’d remember her. The straw to break the camel’s back would be a measure of satisfaction drawn too deeply from the well of Marshes Coomb. She’d been warned by her family as they moved on that the ways of the clan could not survive forever in one place. Her uncle said the Coomb was like a glass half full. Someday, the venom of the curse would fill the glass, and then all the secrets would spill out. The solution, he said, was to keep moving.

Vesper thought it was the strong Rom blood in her uncle that made him speak so strongly about leaving the beach. He was a land pirate with a vagabond’s heart. The Rom blood that seemed to flow in everyone’s veins, but hers. Thereby, she had stayed put. Alone now for over sixty years.

Sweet Jin might be the one to sound the alarm and bring down ruination upon her beach. She didn’t know. As hungry as she was, it didn’t matter. She could feed only on dark nights, and tonight the sky was draped in starless velvet.

She shuddered. The weather had been too damned good for too long and waiting for the new moon had caused her pangs of hunger that were eating at her more acutely than ever they had before. She’d waited too long to make dinner. If she didn’t have to lift her skirts to cause a cascading chain reaction of need in her dinner guest, all the better. If she did, well—it wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it be the last.

Vesper Highgate-Adaire had long since hardened herself to do what she needed to do to survive. It would, indeed, take rakes and pitchforks in the hands of an angry mob to do her in, as she was not going to succumb to hunger. Boredom, maybe.

In truth, she was damned tired. Tired of take-out. Tired of the boredom of being alone. Tired of hiding in plain sight. She was not tired, however, of living on the expanse of land claimed by her kin some four centuries prior. She loved the beach too greatly to leave it as her family had done.

Before her cup o’ curse over-flowed and either created a monster or put an end to the one she knew she truly was, she knew she had to find the means of bringing fresh meat to the market. Carefully assessing her assets had given her a grand idea which would surely end her parade of meals-on-wheels. How much pizza and Chinese could one woman eat, anyway?

She’d had taken steps to invite outsiders to Mooncusser Cove for dinner. Not delivery drivers, but paying guests. They’d come. She’d feed. They’d leave, and new arrivals would take their place. A retreat. A bed-and-breakfast for lovers. A bed-and-breakfast specializing in bonfires on moonless nights, fine wine and aged spirits. Vespers by the Sea. She’d wade through a pervasive aura of sensuality left behind by rutting newlyweds and urban dwellers desperate for weekends of beachcombing and passion.

She’d even tracked down and hired the last Paladin to help her get her B and B up and running. His lineage had been hard to trace, but she’d found him. She’d dangled a weighty carrot before him, and he’d taken the bait. Land. Highly coveted beachfront property. What man wouldn’t embrace his past to claim a piece of heaven by the sea? Funny how he hadn’t known he owned beach-front property.

Seems his father had a bit of bad blood with the kin. He hadn’t wanted to follow in his own father’s footsteps and had turned his back on the kin. And here his family and her family had been doing business together for centuries. How common of him to abandon his duties. But he did have a son—and that son was the answer to her prayers.

Vesper felt certain she could resolve the issue with the progeny of John D. Paladin easy enough. She always got her way.

She headed inside to await the arrival of supper.

*

The road to her place was so quiet that she heard the putt-putt of the delivery car a mile off.

She licked her lips, remembering Jin’s sweet flavor.

The car’s engine idled for a moment, then sputtered and stopped.

Vesper quivered, chastising herself for her wanton, ravenous behavior. She needn’t be so anxious. Dinner was at hand. A little company, some conversation and a full belly on a dark night. Delightful.

A car door opened and slammed shut. Heels clicked against the flagstone path to the cottage steps.

There came a gentle rapping at the door.

Vesper pressed a well-manicured hand against her chest to calm her racing heart. She willed the growling in her belly to quietus and put on her game face.

She breathed in the pungent aroma of eggplant and tofu with brown sauce and fried rice from her side of the closed door. There was something missing in the aroma, however. She didn’t discern Jin’s essence.

Expecting disappointment, but ready to make-do with whomever was standing on the other side, Vesper opened her door.

“Hi. Lucky Panda delivery? Do I have the right place? You’re a ways out here, aren’t you?”

Vesper withheld a mild expletive. She was too hungry to bemoan the fact that the restaurant had sent a female. A female delivery driver! What business in their right mind would send a female out into the countryside to deliver a quart of fried rice? The idiots running the show in Marshes Coomb, that’s who.

She feigned delight. “Yes. I ordered. Won’t you come in?”

The perky blonde driver smiled. “Thanks! Hey, can I use your restroom? It was a long drive.”

“Yes, of course. It’s to your right. I’ll get my wallet,” Vesper replied.

The driver stepped inside and placed the white plastic bag on the table before entering Vesper’s bathroom.

Vesper stomped her foot. A female! Damn!

Her mouth watered. It had been too long since she’d eaten. A full month!

Rage boiled in her gut. Rage like the storms that had ravaged her beach during her long life. She preferred males. She needed a male. Another doom and gloom childhood rhyme began echoing in her mind.

Women plunder not your own,

For madness shall ensue

And wrap you in your shroud it will,

To the kin you’ll bid adieu.

It had been eons since she’d tasted female energy. At her great-great-grandmother’s insistence one dark, hungry night, after a troublesome wrecking, she had taken sustenance from a woman wearing the guise of a man. A stowaway. A runaway, perhaps. A sea-blossom in sailor’s clothing. Her blood had been so delicious, so alive.

She’d been young—and handled the madness by acting out, being disrespectful. Hurting her sisters. Hiding small objects and lying about their whereabouts. It was an allergic reaction of sorts. Her throat and palms burned, and only running free, screaming, would quell the buzzing between her ears.

Great-great-grandmother, the first Vesper Highgate-Adaire, was sent away until her madness cleared. The reaction had manifested in much more devious a manner in a grown woman. It was la fièvre de la femme. The fever brought on by the lustful, sinful nature of women.

Granny, a rebel in Victorian clothing, had never considered the fever to been a problem. She preferred females.

Women’s energies could best be described as an opiate—inducing a hypnotic state born of addictive carnal power. Vesper knew that after feeding on the female driver, she’d want more. She’d feel compelled to bed the first likely suspect to come around like the village floozy. Or she’d drain someone too far. She’d kill. Always bad form when trying to stay in the background and off the grid.

Like a long-sober alcoholic taking a drink, imbibing could make her reckless. Careless. Threaten her safety. Situations arising from the fever could be as deadly to her as choosing one victim and feeding from only that poor soul—or by feeding from one small community for centuries—until each baby born into it carried a part of her. Vesper shrugged. She was there any way—or nearly there.

Her first guest at Vespers by the Sea was scheduled to arrive none too soon. She’d skirted the inevitable and ignored the guidelines and fed from the well of the Coomb for too long. Payback was going to suck.

Ne’er eat too often nor too well

Or bite the spoon of a man.

You leave your mark,

And you’ll be found,

Dead to the soul of your clan.

Share not your bowl

Or you’ll end up whole

In a grave unblessed, not shriven;

You’ll spend eternity in that place,

An eternity unforgiven.

Still, the choice had to be made. It was either enjoy a female, or pray for a couple of cloudy days until the next new moon, or gamble on another delivered meal before all the shops in town closed, hoping they’d send a male driver.

She was famished.

Vesper called to the driver sweetly, like a siren, as the bathroom door opened, “What’s your name?” Besides “supper.”

“I’m Maria. It’s sixteen-fifty with the delivery charge,” the driver replied.

“Where’s Jin?” Vesper asked.

“He’s not working tonight,” Maria said.

Vesper sighed. “He’s delivered here before. I thought he might come back sometime—I’m a good tipper.”

“Oh, yeah? Great!” Maria exclaimed.

Vesper handed Maria a twenty. “Keep the change.” The heady aroma of innocence pushing to burst free from societal shackles scented the girl. Vesper knew she could easily unlock the driver’s caged passions. “You know, you’re really beautiful. Why are you driving for a cheap Chinese take-out joint?”

“Money for culinary classes in the fall,” Maria replied. “How come you live way out here? There’s like nothing out here. I can’t believe I didn’t know this was here.”

Vesper smiled inwardly at the tonal inflections of her dinner guest. Teenagers could be so cute! “Family estate.”

“The big creepy place on the beach? You own it?”

Vesper nodded. “Want to see the inside? It’s quite grand. There’s a round, crimson velveteen bed in the master suite. And fifteen fireplaces.”

Maria smiled. “I guess I have time.”

“Come on, I’ll show you.” Vesper led Maria across the dark courtyard to the main house. An old lighthouse loomed in the distance, its light now manned by a timer and switch. “The light comes on every night at ten.”

“I wonder what it must have been like manning that place in the olden days,” Maria said as she and Vesper walked up the staircase leading to the leaded-glass doors of the main house.

“It was a pain in the ass,” Vesper replied.

“You say that as if you know what it was like,” Maria replied.

Vesper smiled to herself. I do know what it was like. “I’ve read the lighthouse keeper’s journal.” She opened the doors to the main house.

“You don’t keep the place locked?” Maria asked.

“Out here? No need.”

Maria followed Vesper into the magnificent old mansion and stopped dead in her tracks as Vesper switched on a single floor lamp about three steps inside. The soft glow illuminated the foyer in a magical haze of amber light. A huge staircase ascended gracefully before them.

“There’s no overhead lighting. I’ve forty floor and desk lamps strewn about the place. It’s much brighter in the daytime. There are huge windows and several skylights. The parlor is to the right, kitchen to the left. Mysteries beyond through that little doorway over there.” Vesper pointed to a small, latched door built into the side of the staircase.

“What’s a parlor for, exactly?” Maria asked. “I’ve always wondered. And I’m not touching your mysteries beyond. This place is kind of creepy.”

Vesper opened a cabinet next to the floor lamp and withdrew an old aluminum flashlight. “The parlor was the place young men wooed young ladies. Sometimes it became the venue for sexual experimentation between young couples when their parents were too busy drinking brandy in the drawing room.”

“Oh, really? If the settee could speak, right?” Maria replied.

“Come on, I’ll show you. There’s a secret tucked away in the parlor.”

Maria laughed. “I love secrets.”

Vesper inhaled the trailing sound of Maria’s laugh; it smelled delicious. “Well, then you’ll have one to keep after tonight, won’t you?” Vesper encouraged. “Let’s go. There—just through there.” She pointed at a set of heavy velvet drapes. “Go ahead. I’ll be right behind you.”

Vesper flashed the light through the drapes as Maria held them open for her. “All right … there’s a lamp here somewhere. Ah, yes. Here it is.” She switched on a small decorative table lamp with an ornate stained-glass shade.

“So this is where kids did the nasty before the backseats of cars gained in popularity,” Maria said, trailing her hand along a chenille settee. “No dust?”

“Grime just gets in the way of seeing how much work I have to do. In a few short weeks I’m opening this as a bed-and-breakfast. Not everything will be ready by then, but I figure couples will want to return anyway, so even knowing about the upgrades will tickle their fancy. I’ve hired the perfect man for the job, too. He should be arriving soon.”

“I haven’t seen any advertisements in town. God, this is gorgeous furniture. Is it vintage?” Maria asked.

Vesper nodded. “Everything here is guaranteed authentic Americana via the Old World. Some of the antiques in this house literally washed ashore from across the pond during the Revolution. The house has been standing that long, in one form or another.” Vesper paused, “And I haven’t advertised in town. I want city folk to head to the coast, not curious townies. There are better houses than this in the Coomb. Let the Coomb-folk stay at home.” She patted the settee. “The thought of someone like the DeSalvos or Mr. Pennywise sitting on this lovely period piece. Ick! My great-great-grandmother swooned under my great-great-grandfather’s touch right here. She became a woman on this very spot. That’s history for ya, huh? There’s no way a butt impression from a Coomber is going to sully my settee.”

“I understand about the good old boys in town. They’re all a bunch of pervs,” Maria replied.

Vesper nodded. I might have something to do with that. Pervdom is something I leave behind me after I feed. Sorry!

Maria continued, “Isn’t it kind of weird knowing where your grandmother got boned for the first time?”

“I think it’s romantic. When I sit here, I envision how he comforted her into letting him unlace her bodice and remove her stays and slip his fingers inside her bloomers,” Vesper whispered. She continued, her voice low, even and calm. “He probably worked his fingers inside her for a time, conquering her boundaries of flesh and upbringing before planting himself inside her. No condom. Nothing but withdrawal back then, though I suppose they could have used leather sheaths. I hear it was a shot-gun wedding—because granny had a penchant for the ladies and that could have erupted a scandal in the family had she not been quickly married off.”

“You’re talking dirty about your great-great-grandmother. You’ll go to Hell for something like that,” Maria replied. “So, what’s the secret in here?”

Vesper smiled. “It’s carved into the back of the hearth.” She knelt and leaned forward into the fireplace. “Come here.”

Maria knelt down and joined Vesper on the cold flagstones of the hearth. “We need to sit inside and look out. It’s written on the inside, facing the room. It’s clean in here. Fireplace hasn’t been used in years.”

Maria turned and sat down. Vesper shone the light slightly above their heads on the brick wall.

Maria giggled, reading the carefully chiseled inscription. “What is this? Victorian porno?”

Vesper leaned closer to Maria. “My great-great-grandmother was in love with the upstairs maid. Look, they signed their names!”

Maria followed the glow of the flashlight, reading aloud, “Their bosoms sundered, with the opening start. Of married flowers to either side outspread. From the knit stem; yet still their mouths, burnt red, fawned on each other where they lay apart.”

“Do you get it?” Vesper asked.

Maria shook her head. “Sorry, no. I mean, it’s naughty sounding—but it doesn’t really strike me as a secret code or anything.”

“It’s from a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s referring to female oral copulation. My great-great-granny was doing the nasty with the maid. They wanted their love etched in stone.”

Maria continued reading. “Vesper Highgate-Adaire. Prudence Wilson. And a little heart.”

“My great-great-grandmother was Vesper Highgate-Adaire. I know for a fact that Prudence Wilson was the upstairs maid. They were having a love affair. Probably even as great-great-grandfather boned granny for the first time—she was already learning how to love from a woman. I’m named after her. Cool, huh?”

“Did they get caught? I mean—they wrote about their love inside a fireplace. It’s not like they wanted people to know about it.”

“The way Granny was married off at the point of a gun, I think the answer is in the affirmative. Funny thing, however, Victorians didn’t have a clue about female sexuality. My great-great-grandmother was bisexual in a time when the Victorians found it difficult to conceive of the idea of lesbianism at all. Homosexual activity between men was illegal back then, but women weren’t included because no one knew how to explain to Queen Victoria how two women could have sex. Someone should have shown the poor old Queen how women get down—then she might have smiled in some of those sepia photographs,” Vesper replied.

“Are you? Bisexual?” Maria asked. “I’d like to be.”

“That’s an interesting decision. I don’t consider myself bisexual. I’m more of an opportunistic type when it comes to love. When I want it, I’m open to venturing onto either side of the fence.”

Maria shook her head. “That’s a relief. Look, can I level with you? Everyone in the restaurant knows what you and Jin did. I mean, the guy came back higher than a kite with this shit-eating grin on his face. I haven’t actually worked a shift with him yet—but after he spilled the beans to the guys, they were just waiting to take your call. They’re so jealous that I took this delivery.”

Vesper cringed. The blow of Maria’s tale struck her square in the jaw with an uppercut, then another punch went to her breadbasket. She pushed away the urge to vomit. Forced her shock back deep inside to stew and steep and churn within her guts.

Maria touched Vesper’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Vesper nodded. Everyone knows? Everyone? Jin shouldn’t have divulged their tryst. Jin should have been unable to divulge their tryst. A clouded mind and well-satiated smile were all that should remain. He shouldn’t be able to say my name aloud! I’ll have to investigate this further. After supper. God, this is the most important event of my life, and I need to go Scarlet O’Hara on it. I’ll think about it later. I need to get a clear head and a good meal in me first. “Well, you made the delivery? Now what are we going to do?”

“I hear you’re a big tipper,” Maria replied.

“Want to see that round bed?” Vesper asked.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Maria replied.

* * * *

Vesper led Maria up the grand staircase by the hand. Maria’s eagerness passed through the soft flesh of her palm into Vesper’s bloodstream. An hors d’oeuvre of epic proportions. Maria wore her sexuality on her sleeve, just like the sailors of old. A pleasant change from the buffet lines of late. Thank God there were still innocents waiting for defloration in the world. No need to seduce this nubile co-ed or tip the velvet. She exuded pure carnality just with each eager breath.

The call of lady flesh had started its siren’s song. Vesper felt the itch—between her legs, at the tip of her tongue. There’s nothing quite like the deliciousness of innocence. That’s the curse of the Mooncusser clan. Blood and seed and energies best left expended only between a man and his wife, devoured like so much mutton and taters.

Vesper smiled to herself. She had long lost her appetite for Chinese eggplant and tofu in brown sauce. It had gone cold. She needed something warm. Bad news didn’t matter. The certain, though hopefully metaphorical and all-too-impending attack of villagers with rakes and pitchforks didn’t matter. Everything in the universe had to be pushed aside until the urge to feed had passed.

Vesper opened the door to the master’s bedroom and switched on another floor lamp just inside the door. It sputtered, but finally took on a nice peach-like glow. “This is the master suite. It has a private veranda, a secret staircase that leads out to the former carriage house and the naughty round bed. Very risqué for Victorian times. It suggests that the couple sleeping in the bed might actually enjoy sexual relations. Such perversion! Of course, couples did enjoy sex—but no one was supposed to know about it.”

“Incredible,” Maria whispered. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” She climbed onto the bed, stretching herself out. “This is totally sweet!”

“Have you been with a woman before?” Vesper asked, climbing onto the bed next to Maria.

“Truthfully, I’ve never been with anyone. I figured the only way I was going to get to spread my sexual wings in this town was to find out who was having sex and see if I couldn’t get in on the action. It was you or one of the idiot boys I work with. Either that or go back to college in the fall and end up screwing jocks out of desperation. I’m nineteen and ready to experiment.”

*

Maria was so eager, so delightfully eager to walk on the wild side. One short kiss on the lips proved that. A fire ignited in Vesper’s belly.

Just like the sailors of old, blessedly like the sailors of old, Vesper just needed to soak up the aura of anticipation to sound the dinner bell. This was the time of control and composure, lest she devour the girl with one bite. Death was not the answer. One should not kill their flock, but shear it as necessary and keep them coming back to a full trough.

Vesper put her lips to Maria’s throat. Maria quivered and literally swooned, going back against the bed like a rag doll. This poor co-ed was too susceptible. Had Vesper been a hypnotist, Maria would be her chicken via hypnotic suggestion.

Vesper clenched her fists. She smelled sweet blood coursing through Maria’s jugular. One bite away.

Woman to woman was so dangerous a feast.

Vesper bit Maria’s throat as if she were a common vampire and not the more enlightened monster of her kin: a Shadow Lover.

Each flick of her tongue against Maria’s delicate throat sent the co-ed deeper and deeper into a sensual stupor. As Vesper lapped the slow trickle of blood from the miniscule rents in her flesh, Maria grew more excited, as if experiencing a sexual act and not the theft of her life force.

Vesper tasted a weighty presence in Maria’s blood. One of recognition. Remembrance. It gave the sweet nectar a tinny after-taste that left Vesper unsettled.

It was too late, the nectar too sweet. It was honey on her tongue and nourishment for her soul. Nothing satisfied like blood. Nothing was more damning, either. Maria should never know what hit her, either. At least she hoped that would be the case.

It was regret she tasted on her lips. Deep inside, Vesper knew her cup had runneth over. Sadly, she sensed, too, that Maria was not the first spilled soul to seep into the bay at Mooncusser Cove.

 

 

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