I knew Finn would go to Benny. My brother needed him more.
But I never expected all my words and story ideas to disintegrate and blow away like ashes after Father died. Emptiness swirled around me like a vampire lord’s cloak.
And I never expected to wander into my former co-worker’s room in the dead of night…
…Or watch him sleep like a vampiress stalking her prey.
He looked so peaceful while he slept–and less sad.
Maybe I’d feel less sad too, if I slept, or at least less empty. But sleep felt so far away, just like Father…
But Rhys was close. He looked so much like Finn, even if his skin wasn’t as cold and he didn’t smell at all like bat fur. It was more like flowers…and hair gel.
I wanted him to be closer. I just wanted to feel someone’s arms around me, someone warm and alive.
And when he discovered me in his bed, he didn’t tell me to go back to my room…
Maybe it was because he knew what it was like to lose a father too. He hadn’t talked to Uncle Graham in so long, not even at Father’s funeral… Rhys shouldn’t have to lose his father, not when one of them was still alive and the other undead.
And he was so kind to me…
It gave me an idea–one that could help restore my writerly inspiration, and maybe help Rhys reconnect with Uncle Graham too.
First, I had to call him…
“My favorite niece,” Uncle Graham said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
It was comforting to hear his voice. Even if he wasn’t really my uncle, he still felt like family.
“I wanted to ask you for a favor…”
“Anything for the loveliest daughter of my loveliest friend.”
“You own the Alabaster Rose Castle, don’t you?” I asked. “Mother looks so beautiful in all those pregnant nude paintings…and I read some of your very, very descriptive love letters from hundreds of years ago. I feel so at home there, and I know Mother would love it, if she ever saw it…”
“Ah, yes, that’s one of mine…” He paused. “You think it suits her…?”
“…I’m glad.” He sounded so pleased.
I waited for Batty to stop yowling in the background before asking my next question. “Do you think I could stay there for a little while? It seems like the perfect place to write, and I miss it after the show got cancelled, like a dark, terrible pit of despair has opened up in my heart.”
“My castle is your castle,” he said immediately. His quickness to accommodate me reminded me so much of Father…
I smiled. “Would you mind if I brought a friend?”
“Of course not, my dear niece–that castle is very much suited for two…or more, should you be feeling especially lonely.”
“Graham,” my mother’s voice interrupted in the background, “I came here to dance, not wait for you to finish a phone call.”
So Mother and Uncle Graham were together…I was glad she wasn’t alone right now either.
I let him go. My heart had felt so heavy lately, but now I felt it unfurl its dark, grasping tendrils toward the castle of my dreams…and nightmares. Eheheh…
I slept in Rhys’s bed again that night, even if I felt bad about keeping him awake…
But if I hadn’t, Batty probably would’ve. He must’ve been feeling cold and lonely too.
His howls and barks sounded like the haunting song of an enchanted gargoyle guarding an ancient, crumbling castle…
“I want to go back to Alabaster Rose Castle,” I announced early the next morning.
It was still dark out, but not as dark as Rhys’s face just before it shifted into a neutral expression. “You want to leave…so soon?”
“I do. But I want you to come with me,” I breathed in his ear. According to dark and terrible romance novel convention, breathing in someone else’s ear made everything sound more passionate.
“…Me? Rhys Straud?”
“You,” I agreed. “Rhys Straud.”
It took him a while to find the words, but once he finally did, he agreed to make preparations “immediately.” And then I had to make preparations of my own…
“Do you think you could watch Batty while Rhys and I are gone?” I asked Leo. “I’d take him with me, but I don’t want to cruelly tear him away from Primrose, his dark, four-legged ladylove…”
“This is for some sort of important artistic pursuit, correct? Master Straud does appear to take his craft seriously.”
“Very important.” And very, very dark and terrible.
“Your absence will certainly give me time to assist Miss Strider with her culinary pursuits,” he said slowly, smiling to himself, “and her fondness for animals is evident.”
I made a mental note to pry every last piece of information out of Leo’s secret, simmering passion when I got home. If it weren’t for Father, I would’ve noticed all the signs right away–my brother did seem overeager to fetch me things from the kitchen–or maybe I hadn’t been as good sister to him as I tried to be to Benny.
But first, it was time to return to Alabaster Rose Castle…
“I knew it felt right to rescue my costume from the set,” I said. My heart already felt lighter. “It’ll really help me get into character.”
Rhys seemed like he was transported somewhere else too, so far away that he didn’t answer me, his lips pursed in thought…
I’d found a vampire lord costume for him to wear, but it wasn’t Hamlet’s old one. The heroine of my novel wasn’t Octavia, and Rhys wouldn’t be playing Lord Harrington Bishop now.
It hadn’t taken him long to warm to the idea of playing the vampire lord hero of my work-in-progress–only about as long as it took to follow me into Uncle Graham’s secret dungeon bedroom.
I’d changed into a different costume for this; the heroine’s look had to fit the scene.
“And–and what scene might we be starting off with?” Rhys asked. “If you could give me any direction, I’d greatly appreciate it. I’m not especially experienced with improvisation or the lack of a script, though I’ve been honing my skills recently…” I wasn’t sure where he’d found the fake fangs, but they turned him into a perfect vampire lord…
“Belladonna is a beautiful human maiden you abducted from a funeral parlor and brought back to your castle,” I said cheerfully. “She ran away from you, even though you trusted her and she promised she would never leave you. So now you’re going to punish her…with your own hands.”
Rhys hesitated and took a step back. “If she wants to leave, he should be respectful and let her make her own decisions. He sounds rather alarmingly possessive, and–and to raise a hand against a woman… Are you certain he’s the hero of your story?”
“But he wasn’t ready for her to leave him,” I argued, my eyes stinging. “He needed her. So he’s angry and confused and hurt all at once and–and he wants her to feel some of his pain.”
He lowered his voice, even though we were the only two here. “You don’t–don’t actually want me to hurt you, do you? I should merely…pantomime, as they do on film?”
“Please,” I said, closing the distance between us. “I need authenticity for my writing. But if it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to.”
Maybe he didn’t have the dark energies swirling inside him that Uncle Graham did–Finn wouldn’t have done it either, but I just got a feeling with Rhys…
“I’m–I’m an actor,” he said. “I welcome the challenge. But how do I know if I’ve gone too far…? Since we’ll both be deeply into character, I presume…”
That answer came easily. “I’ll call out for my father.”
Rhys was surprisingly gentle, helping me into the stocks…or maybe it was the vampire lord, filled with regret.
“You brought this on yourself,” he muttered darkly, all gentleness vanishing.
“I’m sorry, Lord Blackthorne,” I whispered. “I accept any punishment you deem fit…”
Uncle Graham had locked chests and secret drawers filled with all sorts of dark, terrible implements inside this very room, but I forgot to mention that to Rhys. I wasn’t sure if he would’ve agreed to use them regardless, so instead he used his hand…
I barely felt the first strike. I was partially shielded by my dress and Mother said I inherited her “generous yet still properly modest backside,” but…I could still sense Rhys’s hesitation.
“I belonged to you,” I whispered, sensing his raised hand. “And yet I betrayed you…abandoned you…”
He went completely still. And then… “How could you choose him over me?” he snarled. “Wasn’t I enough? The”–his palm came down hard, his metal rings biting into my skin–“fun we would’ve had, Belladonna. The”–another slap, harder than the last–“love I could’ve given you…”
And he said he wasn’t very good at improvisation… The introduction of a rival love interest was masterful, and an element of almost every vampire story. Maybe that was what my story was missing…
The slaps came faster now–and harder. And with them came my tears…but not from the pain of skin against skin.
And Rhys…Rhys disappeared completely into the cruel, vengeful vampire lord.
The splinters that scraped against my neck were reminiscent of vampire fangs. Maybe we could work up to him sinking his fake fangs into me in a future scene, the way Finn never would…
If only Father had let Mother sink her fangs into him.
And then I screamed: it was like this thing had been growing and growing while I pretended it didn’t exist, consuming me from within and leaving only charred blackness behind, until I finally opened my mouth and unleashed it upon the world. The prolonged, tortured howl was like nothing else that had ever left my lips, like a banshee’s wail after being spurned by a handsome vampire…
“…Ophelia?” Rhys stroked my back, his hand as gentle as his voice. “I–I think we ought to end the scene here.”
I didn’t protest as he released me from the stocks and helped me up.
“You’re crying,” he said, taking my face in his hands. “Was I too rough with you–with Belladonna?”
“No,” I said, my voice small. “You were perfect, Rhys. I couldn’t have asked for a better vampire lord…”
“Perfect,” he repeated, his cheeks glowing with a faint blush. “Well, I have won awards, you know…why don’t I tell you all about them while we get you something to eat? I’ll–I’ll fetch you a cushion to sit on…I believe I spotted one with bat embroidery upstairs.”
I nodded, my eyes not leaving his face.
I saw my vampire lord, yes, but at that moment, I thought I saw something more…