"I don't need it."
"You'l take the crop, Diana."
I took it, resolved to ditch it in the brush at the first opportunity.
"And if you toss it aside when we enter the forest, we're coming home."
Did he real y think I would use the crop on him? I shoved it into my boot, the handle sticking out by my knee, and stomped out into the paddock.
The horses skittered nervously when we came into view.
Like Ysabeau, both knew that something was wrong.
Rakasa took the apple I owed her, and I ran my fingers over her flesh and spoke to her softly in an effort to soothe her.
Matthew didn't bother with Dahr. He was al business, checking the horse's tack with lightning speed. When I'd finished, Matthew tossed me onto Rakasa's back. His hands were firm around my waist, but he didn't hold on a moment longer than necessary. He didn't want any more of my scent on him.
In the forest Matthew made sure the crop was stil in my boot.
"Your right stirrup needs shortening," he pointed out after we had the horses trotting. He wanted my tack in racing trim in case I needed to make a run for it. I pul ed Rakasa in with a scowl and adjusted the stirrup leathers.
The now-familiar field opened up in front of me, and Matthew sniffed the air. He grabbed Rakasa's reins and brought me to a halt. He was stil black with anger.
"There's a rabbit over there." Matthew nodded to the western section of the field.
"I've done rabbit," I said calmly. "And marmot, and goat, and a doe."
Matthew swore. It was concise and comprehensive, and I hoped we were out of the range of Ysabeau's keen ears.
"The phrase is 'cut to the chase,' is it not?"
"I don't hunt deer like my mother does, by frightening it to death and pouncing on it. I can kil a rabbit for you, or even a goat. But I'm not stalking a deer while you're with me."
Matthew's jaw was set in an obstinate line.
"Stop pretending and trust me." I gestured at my saddlebag. "I'm prepared for the wait."
He shook his head. "Not with you at my side."
"Since I've met you," I said quietly, "you've shown me al the pleasant parts of being a vampire. You taste things I can't even imagine. You remember events and people that I can only read about in books. You smel when I change my mind or want to kiss you. You've woken me to a world of sensory possibilities I never dreamed existed."
I paused for a moment, hoping I was making progress. I wasn't.
"At the same time, you've seen me throw up, set fire to your rug, and come completely unglued when I received something unexpected in the mail. You missed the waterworks, but they weren't pretty. In return I'm asking you to let me watch you feed yourself. It's a basic thing, Matthew. If you can't bear it, then we can make the Congregation happy and cal it off."
"Dieu. Wil you never stop surprising me?" Matthew's head lifted, and he stared into the distance. His attention was caught by a young stag on the crest of the hil . The stag was cropping the grass, and the wind was blowing toward us, so he hadn't yet picked up our scent.
Thank you, I breathed silently. It was a gift from the gods for the stag to appear like that. Matthew's eyes locked on his prey, and the anger left him to make room for a preternatural awareness of his environment. I fixed my eyes on the vampire, watching for slight changes that signaled what he was thinking or feeling, but there were precious few clues.
Don't you dare move, I warned when Rakasa tensed in preparation for a fidget. She rooted her hooves into the earth and stood at attention.
Matthew smel ed the wind change and took Rakasa's reins. He slowly moved both horses to the right, keeping them within the path of the downward breezes. The stag raised his head and looked down the hil , then resumed his quiet clipping of the grass. Matthew's eyes darted over the terrain, lingering momentarily on a rabbit and widening when a fox stuck his head out of a hole. A falcon swooped overhead, riding the breezes like a surfer rides the waves, and he took that in as wel . I began to appreciate how he'd managed the creatures in the Bodleian. There was not a living thing in this field that he had not located, identified, and been prepared to kil after only a few minutes of observation. Matthew inched the horses toward the trees, camouflaging my presence by putting me in the midst of other animal scents and sounds.
While we moved, Matthew noted when the falcon was joined by another bird or when one rabbit disappeared down a hole and another popped up to take its place. We startled a spotted animal that looked like a cat, with a long striped tail. From the pitch of Matthew's body, it was clear he wanted to chase it, and had he been alone he would have hunted it down before turning to the stag. With difficulty he drew his eyes away from the animal's leaping form.
It took us almost an hour to make our way from the bottom of the field around the forest's edge. When we were near the top, Matthew performed his face-forward dismount. He smacked Dahr on the rump, and the horse obediently turned and headed for home.
Matthew hadn't let go of Rakasa's reins during these maneuvers, and he didn't release them now. He led her to the edge of the forest and drew in a deep breath, taking in every trace of scent. Without a sound he put us inside a smal thicket of low-growing birch.
The vampire crouched, both knees bent in a position that would have been excruciating to a human after about four minutes. Matthew held it for nearly two hours. My feet fel asleep, and I woke them up by flexing my ankles in the stirrups.
Matthew had not exaggerated the difference between his way of hunting and his mother's. For Ysabeau it was primarily about fil ing a biological need. She needed blood, the animals had it, and she took it from them as efficiently as possible without feeling remorse that her survival required the death of another creature. For her son, however, it was clearly more complicated. He, too, needed the physical nourishment that their blood provided. But Matthew felt a kinship with his prey that reminded me of the tone of respect I'd detected in his articles about the wolves.
For Matthew, hunting was primarily about strategy, about pitting his feral intel igence against something that thought and sensed the world as he did.
Remembering our play in bed that morning, my eyes closed against a sudden jolt of desire. I wanted him as badly here in the forest when he was about to kil something as I had this morning, and I began to understand what worried Matthew about hunting with me. Survival and sexuality were linked in ways I'd never appreciated until now.
He exhaled softly and left my side without warning, his body prowling through the edges of the forest. When Matthew loped across the ridge, the stag raised his head, curious to see what this strange creature was.
It took the stag only a few seconds to assess Matthew as a threat, which was longer than it would have taken me. My hair was standing on end, and I felt the same pul of concern for the stag that I had for Ysabeau's deer. The stag sprang into action, leaping down the hil side. But Matthew was faster, and he cut the animal off before it could get too close to where I was hiding. He chased it up the hil and back across the ridge. With every step, Matthew drew closer and the stag became more anxious.
I know that you're afraid, I said silently, hoping the stag could hear me. He needs to do this. He doesn't do this for sport, or to harm you. He does it to stay alive.
Rakasa's head swung around, and she eyed me nervously. I reached down to reassure her and kept my hand on her neck.
Be still, I urged the stag. Stop running. Not even you are fast enough to outrun this creature. The stag slowed, stumbling over a hole in the ground. He was running straight for me, as if he could hear my voice and was fol owing it to its source.
Matthew reached and grabbed the stag's horns, twisting his head to one side. The stag fel on his back, his sides heaving with exertion. Matthew sank to his knees, holding its head securely, about twenty feet from the thicket. The stag tried to kick his way to his feet.
Let go, I said sadly. It's time. This is the creature who will end your life.
The stag gave a final kick of frustration and fear and then quieted. Matthew stared deep into the eyes of his prey, as if waiting for permission to finish the job, then moved so swiftly that there was nothing more than a blur of black and white as he battened onto the stag's neck.
As he fed, the stag's life seeped away and a surge of energy entered Matthew. There was a clean tang of iron in the air, though no drops of blood fel . When the stag's life force was gone, Matthew remained stil , kneeling quietly next to the carcass with his head bowed.
I kicked Rakasa into a walk. Matthew's back stiffened at my approach. He looked up, his eyes pale gray-green and bright with satisfaction. Taking the crop out of my boot, I threw it as far as I could in the opposite direction. It sailed into the underbrush and became hopelessly entangled in the gorse. Matthew watched with interest, but the danger that he might mistake me for a doe had clearly passed.
Deliberately I took off my helmet and dismounted with my back turned. Even now I trusted him, though he didn't trust himself. Resting my hand lightly on his shoulder, I dropped to my knees and put the helmet down near the stag's staring eyes.
"I like the way you hunt better than the way Ysabeau does it. So does the deer, I think."
"How does my mother kil , that it is so different from me?"
Matthew's French accent was stronger, and his voice sounded even more fluid and hypnotic than usual. He smel ed different, too.
"She hunts out of biological need," I said simply. "You hunt because it makes you feel whol y alive. And you two reached an agreement." I motioned at the stag. "He was at peace, I think, in the end."
Matthew looked at me intently, snow turning to ice on my skin as he stared. "Were you talking to this stag as you talk to Balthasar and Rakasa?"
"I didn't interfere, if that's what you're worried about," I said hastily. "The kil was yours." Maybe such things mattered to vampires.
Matthew shuddered. "I don't keep score." He dragged his eyes from the stag and rose to his feet in one of those smooth movements that marked him unmistakably as a vampire. A long, slender hand reached down. "Come.
You're cold kneeling on the ground."
I placed my hand in his and stood, wondering who would get rid of the stag's carcass. Some combination of Georges and Marthe would be involved. Rakasa was contentedly eating grass, unconcerned by the dead animal lying so close. Unaccountably, I was ravenous.
Rakasa, I cal ed silently. She looked up and walked over.
"Do you mind if I eat?" I asked hesitantly, unsure what Matthew's reaction would be.
His mouth twitched. "No. Given what you've seen today, the least I can do is watch you have a sandwich."
"There's no difference, Matthew." I undid the buckle on Rakasa's saddlebag and said a silent word of thanks.
Marthe, bless her, had packed cheese sandwiches. The worst of my hunger checked, I brushed the crumbs from my hands.
Matthew was watching me like a hawk. "Do you mind?"
he asked quietly.
"Mind what?" I'd already told him I didn't mind about the deer.
"Blanca and Lucas. That I was married and had a child once, so long ago."
I was jealous of Blanca, but Matthew wouldn't understand how or why. I gathered my thoughts and emotions and tried to sort them into something that was both true and would make sense to him.
"I don't mind one moment of love that you've shared with any creature, living or dead," I said emphatical y, "so long as you want to be with me right at this moment."
"Just at this moment?" he asked, his eyebrow arching up into a question mark.
"This is the only moment that matters." It al seemed so simple. "No one who has lived as long as you have comes without a past, Matthew. You weren't a monk, and I don't expect you to have no regrets about who you've lost along the way. How could you not have been loved before, when I love you so much?"
Matthew gathered me to his heart. I went eagerly, glad that the day's hunting had not ended in disaster and that his anger was fading. It stil smoldered-it was evident in a lingering tightness in his face and shoulders-but it no longer threatened to engulf us. He cupped my chin in his long fingers and tilted my face up to his.
"Would you mind very much if I kissed you?" Matthew glanced away for a moment when he asked.
"Of course not." I stood on tiptoes so that my mouth was closer to his. Stil , he hesitated, so I reached up and clasped my hands behind his neck. "Don't be idiotic. Kiss me."
He did, briefly but firmly. The final traces of blood were stil on his lips, but it was neither frightening nor unpleasant.
It was just Matthew.
"You know there won't be any children between us," he said while he held me close, our faces nearly touching.
"Vampires can't father children the traditional way. Do you mind that?"
"There's more than one way to make a child." Children were not something I'd thought about before. "Ysabeau made you, and you belong to her no less than Lucas belonged to you and Blanca. And there are a lot of children in the world who don't have parents." I remembered the moment when Sarah and Em told me mine were gone and never coming back. "We could take them in-a whole coven of them, if we wanted to."
"I haven't made a vampire for years," he said. "I can stil manage it, but I hope you don't intend that we have a large family."
"My family has doubled in the past three weeks, with you, Marthe, and Ysabeau added. I don't know how much more family I can take."
"You need to add one more to that number."
My eyes widened. "There are more of you?"
"Oh, there are always more," he said drily. "Vampire genealogies are much more complicated than witch genealogies, after al . We have blood relations on three sides, not just two. But this is a member of the family that you've already met."
"Marcus?" I asked, thinking of the young American vampire and his high-tops.
Matthew nodded. "He'l have to tel you his own story-I'm not as much of an iconoclast as my mother, despite fal ing in love with a witch. I made him, more than two hundred years ago. And I'm proud of him and what he's done with his life."
"But you didn't want him to take my blood in the lab," I said with a frown. "He's your son. Why couldn't you trust him with me?" Parents were supposed to trust their children.
"He was made with my blood, my darling," Matthew said, looking patient and possessive at the same time. "If I find you so irresistible, why wouldn't he? Remember, none of us is immune to the lure of blood. I might trust him more than I would a stranger, but I'l never be completely at ease when any vampire is too close to you."
"Not even Marthe?" I was aghast. I trusted Marthe completely.
"Not even Marthe," he said firmly. "You real y aren't her type at al , though. She prefers her blood from far brawnier creatures."
"You don't have to worry about Marthe, or Ysabeau either." I was equal y firm.
"Be careful with my mother," Matthew warned. "My father told me never to turn my back on her, and he was right.
She's always been fascinated by and envious of witches.
Given the right circumstances and the right mood . . . ?" He shook his head.
"And then there's what happened to Philippe."
"I'm seeing things now, Matthew. I saw Ysabeau tel you about the witches who captured your father. She has no reason to trust me, but she let me in her house anyway. The real threat is the Congregation. And there would be no danger from them if you made me into a vampire."
His face darkened. "My mother and I are going to have a long talk about appropriate topics of conversation."
"You can't keep the world of vampires-your world- away from me. I'm in it. I need to know how it works and what the rules are." My temper flared, seething down my arms and toward my nails, where it erupted into arcs of blue fire.
Matthew's eyes widened.
"You aren't the only scary creature around, are you?" I waved my fiery hands between us until the vampire shook his head. "So stop being al heroic and let me share your life. I don't want to be with Sir Lancelot. Be yourself- Matthew Clairmont. Complete with your sharp vampire teeth and your scary mother, your test tubes ful of blood and your DNA, your infuriating bossiness and your maddening sense of smel ."
Once I had spit al that out, the blue sparks retreated from my fingertips. They waited, somewhere around my elbows, in case I needed them again.
"If I come closer," Matthew said conversational y, as though asking for the time or the temperature, "wil you turn blue again, or is that it for now?"
"I think I'm done for the time being."
"You think?" His eyebrow arched again.
"I'm perfectly under control," I said with more conviction, remembering with regret the hole in his rug in Oxford.
Matthew had his arms around me in a flash.
"Oof," I complained as he crushed my elbows into my ribs.
"And you are going to give me gray hairs-long thought impossible among vampires, by the way-with your courage, your firecracker hands, and the impossible things you say." To make sure he was safe from the last, Matthew kissed me quite thoroughly. When he was finished, I was unlikely to say much, surprising or otherwise. My ear rested against his sternum, listening patiently for his heart to thump. When it did, I gave him a satisfied squeeze, glad not to be the only one whose heart was ful .
"You win, ma vaillante fille, " he said, cradling me against his body. "I wil try- try-not to coddle you so much. And you must not underestimate how dangerous vampires can be."
It was hard to put "danger" and "vampire" into the same thought while pressed so firmly against him. Rakasa gazed at us indulgently, the grass sprouting out of both sides of her mouth.
"Are you finished?" I angled back my head to look at him.
"If you're asking if I need to hunt more, the answer is no."
"Rakasa is going to explode. She's been eating grass for quite some time. And she can't carry both of us." My hands took stock of Matthew's hips and buttocks.
His breath caught in his throat, making a very different kind of purring sound from the one he made when he was angry.
"You ride, and I'l walk alongside," he suggested after another very thorough kiss.
"Let's both walk." After hours in the saddle, I was not eager to get back up on Rakasa.
It was twilight when Matthew led us back through the chateau gates. Sept-Tours was ablaze, every lamp il uminated in silent greeting.
"Home," I said, my heart lifting at the sight.
Matthew looked at me, rather than the house, and smiled.