Of Blood and Blessings

Blood Royals Book One

L. Shannon

 

Chapter 1

Paris, France, 1625 AD

“Come on, Ames. Kiss the wench!”

Amelia Delacroix cringed against a stack of rough wood wine crates. She needed the tavern job, needed the tenuous security it offered. But no matter the demand, her boyish façade would surely be destroyed by kissing the barmaid, Letta.

Her boss, Monsieur Jones, shoved her disguised body across the crowded storage space and into Letta’s open arms. “Don’t be a pansy.”

Maybe she’d done the boyish masquerade too well or hadn’t managed to keep her head down enough, but suddenly she’d become the center of attention, and not even the return of the Delacroix fortunes could help her now.

For two weeks, Letta had been kind to the boy Amelia had pretended to be. Now, under Jones’s leering eyes, Letta laughed heartily and pressed their bodies together in a long grinding motion. Then Letta’s mouth smacked over hers.

The press of lips grew hard and then wet. Amelia gasped at the strange invasion. She pulled back but was kissed again before she could even take a breath. She had no idea how to react. She’d only ever been kissed once, and that had been a gentle brush from a gentleman. Nothing like this. Nothing like a barmaid at the command of their lecherous employer.

Letta’s mouth left hers and moved to just above her ear. “Relax, Ames. I won’t bite you.” Letta’s hands moved down her back. The embrace tightened, crushing their bodies together.

She froze. She could feel Letta’s feminine body clearly. Surely her own unboyish form would be revealed any second. “No, Letta—”

“Hush, Ames. This will be good for you. Good for us both.”

Never had Letta so much as hinted she found the boy Ames attractive. This game as with every other unfolded for Jones’s pleasure. She bit down on her lip and pinched her eyes shut. Only a miracle could save her now.

Letta’s hands drifted to her rear, cupping one cheek then wandering around her hip toward the expected male genitals in the front.

Jerking, Amelia tried to dodge away in time.

But Jones shoved her hard, back into Letta’s grip. A grip that landed solidly on her crotch.

Letta’s gaze hit hers.

Pulling free from between Letta and Jones, Amelia held up both hands. “Please…” But her apology faded away with the regret in Letta’s gaze. She didn’t need to explain her lie to the tavern girl. Letta understood her reasons perfectly well.

Jones was another matter. “What’s wrong with you, lad?”

Her mouth opened and then shut again.

Letta lurched to her side, catching one hand in a hard grip. “Nothing’s wrong with Ames that a little experience won’t make right.”

“As I believe we were making right together.”

“Ames is just the shy kind,” Letta lied for her, cupping her hand to whisper toward Jones. “Too shy to manage the job in the here and now.”

“Nonsense. Once he’s underway, he’ll find a hard one to fill you with.” Jones yanked her forward out of Letta’s grip. In a single brutal rip, he tore away the strip of cloth she used as a belt.

Fumbling, she snatched at the pants, but they slipped through her fingers and fell to her knees.

“What the hell?” Jones’s mouth dropped open.

Amelia didn’t have to look down to know he could see her faded pink drawers as well as the fact that she was no boy. Dragging her pants back up, she fumbled the belt into place once more, before meeting Jones’s accusing gaze.

“Not a lad at all, but another maid. I’m a lucky man tonight, aren’t I?” His thick fingers closed around her throat, tightening in threat. “I’m not keen on being lied to, Ames, or whatever your name is.”

“I’m sorry, Monsieur Jones. I meant no insult. I only wanted to stay safe—”

“All ladies are safe in my tavern. You had no need to pretend to be a lad here.”

She swallowed back the desire to call Jones a liar. He used all the women here however and wherever he wanted. None could be called safe from him or even from his patrons if the right coin was passed his way.

“What is your name? Not Ames.”

She gasped for air and choked out her name. “Amelia.”

“Let’s have a look at you, Amelia.” He pulled her forward to a bucket of wash water. In a single fast motion, he dunked her headfirst into the cold water. The shock lasted past when she was pulled up. After a few rough tousles, her slicked hair fell around her in unruly soapy curls. A swipe of the washrag over her face and she could only imagine her usual grime smeared away.

She shivered and cowered before Jones.

“Not bad, girl. Not too bad at all. You’ll dress proper tomorrow.” He tipped her face one way and then the other. “By proper I mean a dress. The pink drawers are optional.”

Some men yelled for ale in the front room. Maybe Jones would see to them and leave her be. Instead the man barked at Letta, “Serve the ale.”

Letta ducked out without another word.

Jones’s attention never wavered. “Just how much of a girl are you?” His hands moved down her wet body. After a full and shameful trip down, they moved back up to her breasts and the wraps she bound them with. Clawing fingers tore her damp shirt open and ripped the bindings away before she realized the horror of his intentions.

“No!” She jerked the shirt closed again.

Jones leered. “Not a word I’m fond of, lass.” He dragged her close. His rancid breath poured over her face. “Not a word I’ll be hearing from you if you want to keep working here.”

Her mind whirled, screaming for her to bolt for safety and never look back. But taking the job as a boy had been just about her last choice. She’d seen the way these jobs worked. This nightmare happened in all the little hellholes, which happened to be the only jobs she’d found.

Jones stilled her struggles and continued his violation, hands roaming everywhere, breath coming faster in his grotesque excitement.

Bile rose hot and sharp, choking off her reason. She struck out, hitting Jones across the face, leaving three red trails from her broken fingernails. His arms loosened, and she jerked out of his grasp.

Face red with rage and fist raised to strike, he lurched toward her.

Even her scrambling attempt to flee wouldn’t save her. Poor Jean. He’d never even know why she’d didn’t come home tonight. He’d just suddenly be alone in the world. Iron shot up her back, straightening her before Jones. He might very well kill her here and now, but he wasn’t going to do it with her on the floor begging.

“Monsieur Jones, there is a man here to speak with you about supplies.” Letta hovered at the open door. The sounds of the tavern filtered in.

Amelia held her breath and waited. Would Jones set aside his anger for business? She edged a little toward the rear exit just in case.

In a lightning fast move, Jones caught her shirt and dragged her forward once more. “Don’t think you have escaped so easily. Unload the wagon now and I’ll deal with you after.” He shoved her hard against the stack of storage crates and then turned and stormed back into the tavern. The sound of his welcoming bellow belied his vicious nature.

“Oh Ames … er, Amelia.” Letta’s gaze skittered everywhere but on Amelia. “What were you thinking?”

She’d been thinking about making enough money to keep her brother from starving. “A boy wouldn’t be expected…”

This time Letta’s gaze did meet hers. “Wouldn’t be expected to serve in every way? Aye, here with Jones a boy would have been safe enough.”

“My plan doesn’t matter. That’s all over now.”

“It is. Why did you have to anger him so? He’s not like to be kind to you now.” She frowned. “You see to the wagon, and I’ll see about calming Jones.” Letta ducked back into the tavern.

The flash of fear in Letta’s gaze stayed in Amelia’s mind while she went about the work of unloading and hauling in the supplies from the wagon. The strain of her tired muscles tried to distract her, but again and again, she imagined the many ways Jones could punish her for her deceit.

Surely he’d force her to do the least favored work about the tavern, but that wouldn’t be too far different from Ames’s usual duties. Fighting to carry weight too heavy or cleaning up the foulest of messes, such things she could handle without complaint.

But Jones now knew she was a girl. He’d expect more. He’d expect her to serve his most personal appetites.

She shivered. The damp clothing stuck to her skin. The chill that settled in her wasn’t caused by cold cloth or wet hair.

“Dammit.” The curse slipped out, only to be caught on a short sob. She’d fallen so very far. Not more than ten months had passed since her parents had died. They’d been the longest, most horrible months of her life. She’d gone from protected wealthy daughter to a cussing tavern wench. Her mother would cry at the sight of her now.

She stacked the last sack of bread flour while her own tears threatened to spill past her restraint.

A low groan jerked her gaze to a partially hidden alcove created by the stack of supplies. Jones leaned back against a large box, facing her way, while Letta knelt between his thighs. The sound had come from Jones, but Letta made tiny mewling cries as she slid her mouth forward over his…

She pinched her eyes shut. Even with all the common behavior seen every day at the tavern, never before had she seen something so private.

Part of her couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about. Not that she was ignorant. No, she knew the function of what happened between man and wife, or between Jones and the other women who worked for him, but she’d never seen it nor felt any desire to be part of his games.

Against her will, her eyes opened, and she stared at the spectacle.

Jones’s fingers clenched Letta’s hair. His white-knuckled grip forced her mouth to ride his shaft.

She shouldn’t be watching. Momma would never have allowed her to be exposed to such depravity. But Momma was gone as was Papa and the protection they’d once offered. If this was what awaited her next working day… She swallowed. She’d watch. She had to know.

Letta gripped Jones’s hips, appearing to enjoy the act as much as Jones. How did she find pleasure with a man’s shaft within her mouth? Did it taste differently than other flesh? She couldn’t imagine it being pleasant. Yet, Letta seemed to enjoy the act.

Jones pulled the girl upward and crushed her under an open-mouthed kiss. Letta pushed against him, her hands framing his face before moving lower. One hand gripped his swollen shaft, sliding over it from head to hilt. The reddened flesh jumped with the contact. Jones growled into Letta’s mouth.

Ducking, Jones grabbed the edge of Letta’s skirts, dragging them up one thigh. As the cloth rose, the motion exposed her lack of underclothing. Letta’s head fell back as Jones shifted and plunged his thick rod into her body. Her breasts were free of her corset and bounced as she rode him.

How could he even fit into her? How could Letta enjoy something so much, when the thought of such acts with Jones made Amelia physically ill?

Even now, watching him with Letta, Amelia’s stomach grew tight in a knot. When tomorrow came, she’d be in Letta’s place.

The tangle in her belly twisted.

How could Letta be with him so willingly? Why couldn’t she do the same, feel the same? Was there something wrong with Letta? Or was she the one who was different? The mystery eluded Amelia.

Letta’s moans grew louder, and then, she was shaking and crying out. Jones grunted, his hips bucking wildly. The movement became violent and uneven, then with a bellow, he sagged backwards against the crate.

Then his gaze locked on Amelia. “How nice of you to join us, Amelia. You can be next.”

Her stomach flipped and rebelled. And in that second she knew she’d never be able to do what Jones expected. There had to be another option. Any other option.

* * * *

Grant smiled when he heard Claude’s front door slam. It was about time the fellow returned home. They were already late for the Wellesley party. Even if Claude tended to run late to every event, a better chap couldn’t be found in Paris. Turning to the buffet, he poured out a second brandy for his friend.

Claude caught his shoulder and spun him about. “Time to put an end to your wretched existence.”

Grant grunted as Claude’s dagger sank deep into his chest. For a moment he stared at the hilt in wonder. Sure he’d known this day would come, but somehow, he’d hoped it would be different this time.

And wretched? His existence had been rather pleasant until the disloyal cur stabbed him, which definitely wasn’t proving to be the high point of the evening.

Grant’s demonic power flared, protecting him from any mortal harm. When Claude’s eyes widened, he realized his powers must have given his friend a glimpse of his true, far-from-human form.

“Dammit, Claude, that stung like the devil.” At least it had until the magic dissolved the blade and healed his flesh, leaving behind no damage other than the torn shirt. The knife handle fell to the thick carpet with a quiet thud. “Now, why did you have to do that? You know this is my favorite shirt.” Grant traced the edge of the torn silk with a carefully manicured fingernail.

“I don’t give a shit about your shirt. I know what you are!” Claude backed away, knocking over a parlor chair and bumping into the fireplace mantel.

“And what am I? A good friend? A companion in society? Glad you don’t have better aim.” Grant hated these melodramatic scenes that humans always felt the need to play out when they discovered he wasn’t one of them.

“A bloody demon!” Claude’s nearly hysterical scream hurt worse than the damn dagger.

“Fine, yes, but who let the proverbial cat from the sack?” He wasn’t really surprised Claude had learned part of the truth. He had been in town long enough for a few differences to be noticed. Especially since he now looked twenty years younger than Claude and his two brothers. Even Claude’s youngest brother, William, at twenty-five, looked older than Grant. It was a miracle the truth hadn’t come out much sooner.

“Does how I found out matter? I know you must die.” Claude’s hands clenched, yanking at his tailored jacket hard enough to rip the hem free.

“Damn it, man, be gentle on the clothing. I lent that to you just a fortnight ago.”

Claude shrugged off the jacket with shaking hands.

He didn’t bother to pick the jacket up. The loss was nothing compared to losing his friend, which, it appeared, was inevitable. “Come on, Claude, let’s just forget the whole issue. We can skip the Wellesley gala and try that new tavern on Long Street.”

“What?” Claude ran nervous fingers through his hair. “You … you’re a demon! We put it together after you left that girl last week. Pierre found the marks on her neck. That’s when it all began to make sense. Avoiding the sun, feeding on blood, getting anything and everything you want… We can’t leave a blood-drinking demon to run loose and kill innocent girls. I’ve been sworn to stop you.”

“If what you said was true, I’d stand here and oblige you. But I did not kill that girl. She’s well and hardy. You can see yourself if we head out to Elmore’s party. I expect the sweet girl is even now on his little brother’s arm.”

“You’re insane. I don’t socialize with your kind.”

“But, my dear friend, you’ve been socializing with me for nearly two decades now. Why must that all change because of one small hereditary detail that neither of us has control over?”

“Because… Just because.” Claude pulled another knife, hurling it to add bite to his less than precise point.

Grant was faster this time and dissolved the knife before it reached him or could mutilate his clothing any further. The best tailors of Paris were far too difficult to deal with for any sane being to damage clothing willy-nilly.

As the knife hit the floor in a melted blob, he was left staring at his former friend while a different pain bloomed in his chest. Was there any way to convince Claude to forget what he’d figured out? Probably not. Nothing said goodbye better than a knife to the chest.

At least he had offered the proverbial olive branch, even if the undeserving would-be killer hadn’t accepted. “So is that it then? Well, I will give you this; you picked a hell of a way to tell me to shove off.” Grant flew across the room and dragged Claude into his tight, unforgiving grip. “Sweet dreams, my friend.” He stroked one hand over Claude’s forehead and then settled Claude’s slack body into a nearby chair.

His friend would have ample time to sleep off the effects, and, within a week or two, he would be back to normal, hopefully having forgotten all the nonsense and assassination plans.

The bigger question was who else knew or suspected? Who would be next to attack him? Surely Claude would include both his brothers in his efforts, possibly even some of their other friends. Grant groaned at the thought. The hassle of dodging would-be killers simply wasn’t worth the benefit of staying in the city.

It was time to leave Paris and move to a less hostile environment. Cities tended to lose all appeal when friends decided to … how had he put it? Oh, right, put an end to his wretched…

He groaned. Never mind, these things happened now and then. They were painful, but he’d found them unavoidable.

So he would leave. Grant grabbed up his cloak but paused for one last look at his friend. “Fare well, good chum. It’s been swell.”

He paused at the entrance. The front door hung open, but he was sure he’d heard Claude slam it. Hadn’t he? Closing the door gently, he strode out into the light rain. Perhaps calling his coach would have been wiser, but the cool weather fit his mood, and fortunately, he could keep it from ruining his clothes. Instead, he’d take a last walk through his city before saying Adieu to one of his favorite lands.

When his nostalgia grew too strong, he turned his path to the poorer area, hoping the filth and disrepute would make the relocation less painful.

The door to the tavern just ahead crashed open, followed by a man’s cold, angry voice. “Don’t you dare leave, Amelia!”

Grant continued forward. It was none of his concern, but he couldn’t help but slow his steps to listen.

“I won’t be your whore.” The slight tremor in the girl’s words pulled at some long forgotten part of Grant. “I can learn to serve drink or keep cleaning up. Why can’t that be enough?”

“It was enough before. Now you’ve different skills to ply. If you’ll not accept my generous offer, starve on the street.” A cruel chuckle, then, “And that innocent babe of a brother will starve, as well. Go ahead and run. Be back tomorrow or I will hire another girl for the position.”

A petite bundle flew out the doorway, heedless of all around her. Her head bent, she took three steps and plowed into Grant’s chest. He steadied her in his arms, enjoying her sudden warmth while the door slammed shut behind her. Her wide, green gaze jumped to his, knocking the breath from his lungs like a physical blow. His senses, both human and demon, burst painfully to life. She was lovely, soft and delicate. Even her wet boyish clothes hid nothing of her charms. Her slightly upturned nose was spattered with kissable freckles. Her chestnut hair tumbled about her shoulders in damp ringlets. Her sweet scent overpowered the tavern smells that clung to her. He could feel and hear her fast heartbeat, calling to his hungers.

Grant’s senses swam. Her beauty, scent, and feel pulled at him, blinding him to the world outside their embrace. As she pulled back from him, he realized he’d been lowering his head to indulge fully in her, to taste her essence, to feed on her blood. Right here in the damn street. He struggled to control himself and his lengthening fangs, letting her step away from him. His hands held her a moment longer before he shook free of the painful need. “Beg your pardon, mademoiselle. Are you all right?”

“Yes. Fine, thank you.” Her voice quavered, betraying the lie. Her beautiful eyes were tinged red, possibly from crying. He heard her too fast heartbeat and felt the tremors that shook her body, giving lie to her assessment.

“You are cold and quite wet, but not fine.” Far from fine, she had just escaped a man who apparently wanted to use her body, and run directly into a demon who wanted that and to feast on her blood as well. Her luck was definitely not improving. And neither was his wit.

The girl was almost laughing at his idiotic appraisal of her condition. “It is raining, and I’m sure you may have noticed you’re wet also.”

In the midst of their meeting, his powers had slipped, and he was indeed as wet as she. “So I am.” But his condition would cause him no harm.

She wasn’t so lucky. The poor girl was wet and cold, in addition to being upset from the previous argument. Now, he was the one keeping her out in the weather. She should be home and warm and needed better protection from the cold rain than the wet rags she wore.

How completely ridiculous. The threat of a chill was by far the least of the dangers when he ached to sink his fangs through the delicate skin of her throat. The burning thirst for this woman’s blood raced through Grant as if he would die without it. For her own safety, he needed to be away from her.

Grant swept off his long cape and draped it about her shoulders before she could protest. “You need this more than I do.”

*

“No, monsieur, I couldn’t!” Amelia objected, but the dark-haired stranger stepped past her and disappeared into the night. “Monsieur?”

“Hold tight to my cape. I will come for it soon.” The whispered words shivered down her spine, sending a twist of danger and something warm vibrating through her body.

The danger she understood. It had been too long since she’d met a man of worth. This one was likely no better than the rest. But the other… Was it desire? That reaction made no sense at all. Still it was there, lingering in her mind.

She trembled. He’d offered no threat. Every second of their brief meeting had been proper in every way. His voice and kindness warmed her through, and he’d also managed to push back the terror of dealing with Jones.

Amelia gripped the warm fabric about her, breathing in the sensual musk of it. The subtly spicy scent brought to mind a cozy evening, safe in the arms of a loved one, perhaps cuddled in front of a warm fire. Such decadence. Her unseemly thoughts strayed further, wondering what kind of lover the stranger would be.

A giggle escaped at the wild musings. How could she think such things after an evening dodging Jones?

Because that man was different…

How was he different? He’d been dressed in fine, tailored clothing like she remembered from her life before. But in the time she’d been on her own, she’d learned fine clothes did not always make for a fine man. The stranger’s hands had been just as strong as Jones’s, but there’d been no threat in his firm grip.

The touch of other men scared her, but this man’s hands warmed her and left her feeling protected. Safe.

It made no sense. She didn’t know him. He could be dangerous, cruel. He could be anything.

But he’d proven himself generous with the loan of his cape.

She was still quite a distance from her home when the rain increased, pouring in heavy, cold splatters. Without the cloak, she’d have been frozen. Even with the luxury, the cold beat at her.

She sent out a silent thanks to the stranger. His unexpected kindness boosted her flagging spirit.

Somehow, she’d find a way to thank him properly when he came for the cloak. But… How would he find her? They’d talked foolishness and never even exchanged names.

Would she recognize him in other circumstances? Yes, she would remember his intense silver-gray eyes, his long black hair, and, of course, his height. He’d towered over her, making her feel delicate and more feminine than ever before.

He was tall, much taller than her…

Oh no! The too long hem of the cloak dragged along the wet, muddy streets. It was filthy, and the fine material was probably beyond salvaging. Raising it higher, she hurried the rest of the way, glad the man would never find her and learn how badly she’d cared for his expensive belongings.

She reached her building and quietly entered the first floor rooms. She’d left her brother, Jean, with the elderly couple who lived there. In exchange, she did their laundry on her days off. As usual, Madame Pentreaux had left a candle burning for her. Her brother barely stirred when she gathered him into her arms, blew out the candle, and closed the door behind her.

The two flights of stairs seemed longer and steeper this night. Jean’s weight was a sweet but heavy burden. Finally within their rented room, she undressed Jean and tucked him into his own small bed. She smiled and stroked his hair back. He’d been so happy the room included two beds, despite its small size. Tears stung her eyes at the thought of leaving if she couldn’t keep the position at the tavern.

Once Jean was settled for the rest of the night, Amelia looked over their precarious budget. Ms. Tessa, her governess, had taught her how to do sums. Tonight she regretted the skill. No matter how she added, they didn’t have enough for another week’s rent.

She’d only have a few days to find another job or to give in to Jones. The thought of Jones touching her as he had Letta sent nausea rolling through her empty stomach. If she couldn’t find other work, could she tolerate his touch?

She sucked in a raw breath. Yes, she could. Much as the thought scared her, she could and would do whatever it took for them to survive.

 

 

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