فصل 29

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فصل 29

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29

“Where is Matthew? He should be here,” Fernando murmured, turning away from the view of Diana sitting in the small, sunny room where she spent most of her time since being put on a strict regime of bed rest.

Diana was still brooding over what happened in the Bodleian. She had not forgiven herself for allowing Benjamin to threaten Phoebe or for letting the opportunity to kill Matthew’s son slip through her fingers. But Fernando feared that this would not be the last time her nerves would fail in the face of the enemy.

“Diana’s fine.” Gallowglass was propped up against the wall in the hallway opposite the door, his arms crossed. “The doctor said so this morning. Besides, Matthew can’t return until he gets his new family sorted out.”

Gallowglass had been their only link to Matthew for weeks. Fernando swore. He pounced, pressing his mouth tightly against Gallowglass’s ear and his hand against his windpipe.

“You haven’t told Matthew,” Fernando said, lowering his voice so that no one else in the house could hear. “He has a right to know what’s happened here, Gallowglass: the magic, finding that page from the Book of Life, Benjamin’s appearance, Diana’s condition—all of it.”

“If Matthew wanted to know what was happening to his wife, he would be here and not bringing a pack of recalcitrant children to heel,” Gallowglass choked out, grasping Fernando’s wrist.

“And you believe this because you would have stayed?” Fernando released him. “You are more lost than the moon in winter. It does not matter where Matthew is. Diana belongs to him. She will never be yours.”

“I know that.” Gallowglass’s blue eyes did not waver.

“Matthew may kill you for this.” There was not a touch of histrionics in Fernando’s pronouncement.

“There are worse things than my being killed,” Gallowglass said evenly. “The doctor said no stress or the babes could die. So could Diana. Not even Matthew will harm them while I have breath in my body. That’s my job—and I do it well.”

“When I next see Philippe de Clermont—and he is no doubt toasting his feet before the devil’s fire—he will answer to me for asking this of you.” Fernando knew that Philippe enjoyed making other people’s decisions. He should have made a different one in this case.

“I would have done it regardless.” Gallowglass stepped away. “I don’t seem to have a choice.”

“You always have a choice. And you deserve a chance to be happy.” There had to be a woman out there for Gallowglass, Fernando thought—one who would make him forget Diana Bishop.

“Do I?” Gallowglass’s expression turned wistful.

“Yes. Diana has a right to be happy, too.” Fernando’s words were deliberately blunt. “They’ve been apart long enough. It’s time Matthew came home.”

“Not unless his blood rage is under control. Being away from Diana so long will have made him unstable enough. If Matthew finds out the pregnancy is putting her life in peril, God only knows what he’ll do.” Gallowglass matched blunt with blunt. “Baldwin is right. The greatest danger we face is not Benjamin, and it isn’t the Congregation—it’s Matthew. Better fifty enemies outside the door than one within it.”

“So Matthew is your enemy now?” Fernando spoke in a whisper. “And you think he’s the one who has lost his senses?”

Gallowglass made no reply.

“If you know what is good for you, Gallowglass, you will walk out of this house the minute Matthew returns. Wherever you go—and the ends of the earth may not be far enough to keep you from his wrath—I advise you to spend time on your knees begging God for His protection.”

The Domino Club on Royal Street hadn’t changed much since Matthew had first walked through its doors almost two centuries ago. The three-story façade, gray walls, and crisp black-and-white painted trim was the same, the height of the arched windows at street level suggesting an openness to the outside world that was belied by the closing of their heavy shutters. When the shutters were flung wide at five o’clock, the general public would be welcomed to a beautiful polished bar and to enjoy music provided by a variety of local performers.

But Matthew was not interested in tonight’s entertainment. His eyes were fixed on an ornate iron railing wrapped around the second-floor balcony that provided a sheltering overhang for the pedestrians below. That floor and the one above were restricted to members. A significant portion of the Domino Club’s membership roster had signed up when it was founded in 1839—two years before the Boston Club, officially the oldest gentlemen’s club in New Orleans, opened its doors. The rest had been carefully selected according to their looks, breeding, and ability to lose large sums of money at the gambling tables.

Ransome Fayrweather, Marcus’s eldest son and the club’s owner, would be on the second floor in his office overlooking the corner. Matthew pushed open the black door and entered the cool, dark bar.

The place smelled of bourbon and pheromones, the most familiar cocktail in the city. The heels of his shoes made a soft snick against the checkered marble floor.

It was four o’clock, and only Ransome and his staff were on the premises.

“Mr. Clairmont?” The vampire behind the bar looked as though he’d seen a ghost and took a step toward the cash register. One glance from Matthew and he froze.

“I’m here to see Ransome.” Matthew stalked toward the stairs. No one stopped him.

Ransome’s door was closed, and Matthew opened it without knocking.

A man sat with his back to the door and his feet propped up on the windowsill. He was wearing a black suit, and his hair was the same rich brown as the wood of the mahogany chair in which he sat.

“Well, well. Grandpa’s home,” Ransome said in a treacle-dipped drawl. He didn’t turn to look at his visitor, and a worn ebony-and-ivory domino kept moving between his pale fingers. “What brings you to Royal Street?”

“I understand you wish to settle accounts.” Matthew took a seat opposite, leaving the heavy desk between him and his grandson.

Ransome slowly turned. The man’s eyes were cold chips of green glass in an otherwise handsome and relaxed face. Then his heavy lids dropped, hiding all that sharpness and suggesting a sensual somnolence that Matthew knew was nothing more than a front.

“As you’re aware, I’m here to bring you to heel. Your brothers and sister have all agreed to support me and the new scion.” Matthew sat back in his chair. “You’re the last holdout, Ransome.”

All of Marcus’s other children had submitted quickly. When Matthew told them they carried the genetic marker for blood rage, they had been first stunned and then furious. After that had come fear.

They were schooled enough in vampire law to know that their bloodline made them vulnerable, that if any other vampire found out about their condition, they could face immediate death. Marcus’s children needed Matthew as much as he needed them. Without him, they would not survive.

“I have a better memory than they do,” Ransome said. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out an old ledger.

With every day away from Diana, Matthew’s temper shortened and his propensity for violence increased. It was vital to have Ransome on his side. And yet, at this moment, he wanted to throttle this grandson. The whole business of confessing and seeking atonement had taken much longer than he’d anticipated—and it was keeping him far from where he should be.

“I had no choice but to kill them, Ransome.” It took an effort for Matthew to keep his voice even.

“Even now Baldwin would rather I kill Jack than risk having him expose our secret. But Marcus convinced me I had other options.”

“Marcus told you that last time. Yet you still culled us, one by one. What’s changed?” Ransome asked.

“I have.”

“Never try to con a con, Matthew,” Ransome said in the same lazy drawl. “You’ve still got that look in your eye that warns creatures not to cross you. Had you lost it, your corpse would be laid out in my foyer. The barkeep was told to shoot you on sight.”

“To give him credit, he did reach for the shotgun by the register.” Matthew’s attention never drifted from Ransome’s face. “Tell him to pull the knife from his belt next time.”

“I’ll be sure to pass on that tip.” Ransome’s domino paused momentarily, caught between his middle and ring fingers. “What happened to Juliette Durand?”

The muscle in Matthew’s jaw ticked. The last time he came to town, Juliette Durand had been with him. When the two left New Orleans, Marcus’s boisterous family was significantly smaller. Juliette was Gerbert’s creature and had been eager to prove her usefulness at a time when Matthew was growing tired of being the de Clermont family’s problem solver. She had disposed of more vampires in New Orleans than Matthew had.

“My wife killed her.” Matthew didn’t elaborate.

“Sounds like you found yourself a good woman,” Ransome said, snapping open the ledger before him. He took the cap off a nearby pen, the tip of which looked as if it had been chewed by a wild animal. “Care to play a game of chance with me, Matthew?”

Matthew’s cool eyes met Ransome’s brighter green gaze. Matthew’s pupils were growing larger by the second. Ransome’s lip curled in a scornful smile.

“Afraid?” Ransome asked. “Of me? I’m flattered.”

“Whether I play the game or not depends on the stakes.”

“My sworn allegiance if you win,” Ransome replied, his smile foxy.

“And if I lose?” Matthew’s drawl was not treacle-coated but was just as disarming. “That’s where the chance comes in.” Ransome sent the domino spinning into the air.

Matthew caught it. “I’ll take your wager.”

“You don’t know what the game is yet,” Ransome said.

Matthew stared at him impassively.

Ransome’s lips tipped up at the corners. “If you weren’t such a bastard, I might grow to like you,”

he observed.

“Likewise,” Matthew said crisply. “The game?”

Ransome drew the ledger closer. “If you can name every sister, brother, niece, nephew, and grandchild of mine you killed in New Orleans all those years ago—as well as any other vampires you killed in the city along the way—I will throw myself in with the rest.”

Matthew studied his grandson.

“Wish you’d asked for the terms sooner?” Ransome grinned.

“Malachi Smith. Crispin Jones. Suzette Boudrot. Claude Le Breton.” Matthew paused as Ransome searched the ledger’s entries for the names. “You should have kept them in chronological order instead of alphabetical. That’s how I remember them.”

Ransome looked up in surprise. Matthew’s smile was small and wolfish, the kind to make any fox run for the hills.

Matthew continued to recite names long after the downstairs bar opened for business. He finished just in time to see the first gamblers arrive at nine o’clock. Ransome had consumed a fifth of bourbon by then. Matthew was still sipping his first glass of 1775 Château Lafite, which he had given to Marcus in 1789 when the Constitution went into effect. Ransome had been storing it for his father since the Domino Club opened.

“I believe that settles matters, Ransome.” Matthew stood and placed the domino on the desk.

Ransome looked dazed. “How can you possibly remember all of them?”

“How could I ever forget?” Matthew drank down the last of his wine. “You have potential, Ransome. I look forward to doing business with you in future. Thank you for the wine.”

“Son of a bitch,” Ransome muttered under his breath as the sire of his clan departed.

Matthew was weary to the bone and ready to murder something when he returned to the Garden District.

He’d walked there from the French Quarter, hoping to burn off some excess emotion. The endless list of names had stirred up too many memories, none of them pleasant. Guilt had followed in their wake.

He took out his phone, hoping that Diana had sent him a photograph. The images she sent thus far were his lifeline. Though Matthew had been furious to discover from them that his wife was in London rather than Sept-Tours, there had been moments over the past weeks when the glimpses into her life there were all that kept him sane.

“Hello, Matthew.” To his surprise, Fernando sat on the wide front steps of Marcus’s house, waiting for him. Chris Roberts was perched nearby.

“Diana?” It was part howl, part accusation, and entirely terrifying. Behind Fernando the door opened.

“Fernando? Chris?” Marcus looked startled. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for Matthew,” Fernando replied.

“Come inside. All of you.” Marcus beckoned them forward. “Miss Davenport is watching.” His neighbors were old, idle, and nosy.

Matthew, however, was beyond the reach of reason. He’d been nearly there several times, but the unexpected sight of Fernando and Chris had sent him over. Now that Marcus knew that his father had blood rage, he understood why Matthew always went away—alone—to recover when he got into this state.

“Who is with her?” Matthew’s voice was like a musket firing: first a raspy sound of warning, then a loud report.

“Ysabeau, I expect.” Marcus said. “Phoebe. And Sarah. And of course Gallowglass.”

“Don’t forget Leonard,” Jack said, appearing behind Marcus. “He’s my best friend, Matthew.

Leonard would never let anything happen to Diana.”

“You see, Matthew? Diana is just fine.” Marcus had already heard from Ransome that Matthew had come from Royal Street, having achieved his goal of family solidarity. Marcus couldn’t imagine what had put Matthew in such a foul mood, given his success.

Matthew’s arm moved quickly and with enough power to pulverize a human’s bones. Instead of choosing a soft target, however, he smashed his hand into one of the white Ionic pillars supporting the upper gallery of the house. Jack put a restraining hand on his other arm.

“If this keeps up, I’m going to have to move back to the Marigny,” Marcus said mildly, eyeing a cannonball-size depression near the front door.

“Let me go,” Matthew said. Jack’s hand dropped to his side, and Matthew shot up the steps and stalked down the long hall to the back of the house. A door slammed in the distance.

“Well, that went better than I expected.” Fernando stood.

“He’s been worse since my mo—” Jack bit his lip and avoided Marcus’s gaze.

“You must be Jack,” Fernando said. He bowed, as though Jack were royalty and not a penniless orphan with a deadly disease. “It is an honor to meet you. Madame your mother speaks of you often, and with great pride.”

“She’s not my mother,” Jack said, lightning quick. “It was a mistake.”

“That was no mistake,” Fernando said. “Blood may speak loudly, but I always prefer the tales told by the heart.”

“Did you say ‘madame’?” Marcus’s lungs felt tight, and his voice sounded strange. He hadn’t let himself hope that Fernando would do such a selfless thing, and yet . . .

“Yes, milord.” Fernando bowed again.

“Why is he bowing to you?” Jack whispered to Marcus. “And who is ‘milord’?”

“Marcus is ‘milord,’ because he is one of Matthew’s children,” Fernando explained. “And I bow to you both, because that is how family members who are not of the blood treat those who are—with respect and gratitude.”

“Thank God. You’ve joined us.” The air left Marcus’s lungs in a whoosh of relief.

“I sure as hell hope there’s enough bourbon in this house to wash down all the bullshit,” Chris said.

“‘Milord’ my ass. And I’m not bowing to anybody.”

“Duly noted,” Marcus said. “What brings you both to New Orleans?”

“Miriam sent me,” Chris said. “I’ve got test results for Matthew, and she didn’t want to send them electronically. Plus, Fernando didn’t know how to find Matthew. Good thing Jack and I stayed in touch.”

He smiled at the young man. Jack grinned back.

“As for me, I am here to save your father from himself,” Fernando bowed again, this time with a trace of mockery. “With your permission, milord.”

“Be my guest,” Marcus said, stepping inside. “But if you call me ‘milord’ or bow to me one more time, I’ll put you in the bayou. And Chris will help me.”

“I’ll show you where Matthew is,” Jack said, already eager to rejoin his idol.

“What about me? We need to catch up,” Chris said, grabbing his arm. “Have you been sketching, Jack?”

“My sketchbook is upstairs. . . .” Jack cast a worried look toward the back garden. “Matthew isn’t feeling well. He never leaves me when I’m like this. I should—”

Fernando rested his hands on the young man’s tense shoulders. “You remind me of Matthew, back when he was a young vampire.” It hurt Fernando’s heart to see it, but it was true.

“I do?” Jack sounded awed.

“You do. Same compassion. Same courage, too.” Fernando looked at Jack thoughtfully. “And you share Matthew’s hope that if you shoulder the burdens of others, they will love you in spite of the sickness in your veins.”

Jack looked at his feet. “Did Matthew tell you that his brother Hugh was my mate?” Fernando asked.

“No,” Jack murmured.

“Long ago Hugh told Matthew something very important. I am here to remind him of it.” Fernando waited for Jack to meet his eyes.

“What?” Jack asked, unable to hide his curiosity.

“If you truly love someone, you will cherish what they despise most about themselves.” Fernando’s voice dropped. “Next time Matthew forgets that, you remind him. And if you forget, I’ll remind you.

Once. After that, I’m telling Diana that you are wallowing in self-hatred. And your mother is not nearly as forgiving as I am.”

Fernando found Matthew in the narrow back garden, under the cover of a small gazebo. The rain that had been threatening all evening had finally started to fall. He was oddly preoccupied with his phone.

Every minute or so, his thumb moved, followed by a fixed stare, then another movement of the thumb.

“You’re as bad as Diana, staring at her phone all the time without ever sending a message.”

Fernando’s laughter stopped abruptly. “It’s you. You’ve been in touch with her all along.”

“Just pictures. No words. I don’t trust myself—or the Congregation—with words.” Matthew’s thumb moved.

Fernando had heard Diana say to Sarah, “Still no word from Matthew.” Literally speaking, the witch had not lied, which had prevented the family from knowing her secret. And as long as Diana sent only pictures, there would be little way for Matthew to know how badly things had gone wrong in Oxford.

Matthew’s breath was ragged. He steadied it with visible effort. His thumb moved.

“Do that one more time and I’ll break it. And I’m not talking about the phone.”

The sound that came out of Matthew’s mouth was more bark than laugh, as if the human part of him had given up the fight and let the wolf win. “What do you think Hugh would have done with a cell phone?” Matthew cradled his in both hands as though it were his last precious link to the world outside his own troubled mind.

“Not much. Hugh wouldn’t remember to charge it, for a start. I loved your brother with all my heart, Matthew, but he was hopeless when it came to daily life.”

This time Matthew’s answering chuckle sounded less like a sound a wild animal might make.

“I take it that patriarchy has been more difficult than you anticipated?” Fernando didn’t envy Matthew for having to assert his leadership over this pack.

“Not really. Marcus’s children still hate me, and rightfully so.” Matthew’s fingers closed on the phone, his eyes straying to the screen like an addict’s. “I just saw the last of them. Ransome made me account for every vampire death I was responsible for in New Orleans—even the ones that had nothing to do with purging the blood rage from the city.”

“That must have taken some time,” Fernando murmured.

“Five hours. Ransome was surprised I remembered them all by name,” Matthew said.

Fernando was not.

“Now all of Marcus’s children have agreed to support me and be included in the scion, but I wouldn’t want to test their devotion,” Matthew continued. “Mine is a family built on fear—fear of Benjamin, of the Congregation, of other vampires, even of me. It’s not based on love or respect.”

“Fear is easy to root. Love and respect take more time,” Fernando told him.

The silence stretched, became leaden.

“Do you not want to ask me about your wife?”

“No.” Matthew stared at an ax buried in a thick stump. There were piles of split logs all around it.

He rose and picked up a fresh log. “Not until I’m well enough to go to her and see for myself. I couldn’t bear it, Fernando. Not being able to hold her—to watch our children grow inside her—to know she is safe, it’s been—”

Fernando waited until the ax thunked into the wood before he prompted Matthew to continue. “It’s been what, Mateus?”

Matthew pulled the ax free. He swung again.

Had Fernando not been a vampire, he wouldn’t have heard the response.

“It’s been like having my heart ripped out.” Matthew’s axhead cleaved the wood with a mighty crack. “Every single minute of every single day.”

Fernando gave Matthew forty-eight hours to recover from the ordeal with Ransome. Confessions of past sins were never easy, and Matthew was particularly prone to brooding.

Fernando took advantage of that time to introduce himself to Marcus’s children and grandchildren.

He made sure they understood the family rules and who would punish those who disobeyed them, for Fernando had appointed himself Matthew’s enforcer—and executioner. The New Orleans branch of the Bishop-Clairmont family was rather subdued afterward, and Fernando decided Matthew could now go home. Fernando was increasingly concerned about Diana. Ysabeau said her medical condition was unchanged, but Sarah was still worried. Something was not right, she told Fernando, and she suspected that only Matthew would be able to fix it.

Fernando found Matthew in the garden as he often was, eyes black and hackles raised. He was still in the grip of blood rage. Sadly, there was no more wood for him to chop in Orleans Parish.

“Here.” Fernando dropped a bag at Matthew’s feet.

Inside the bag Matthew found his small ax and chisel, T-handled augers of various sizes, a frame saw, and two of his precious planes. Alain had neatly wrapped the planes in oiled cloth to protect them during their travels. Matthew stared at his well-used tools, then at his hands.

“Those hands haven’t always done bloody work,” Fernando reminded him. “I remember when they healed, created, made music.”

Matthew looked at him, mute.

“Will you make them on straight legs or with a curved base so they can be rocked?” Fernando asked conversationally.

Matthew frowned. “Make what?”

“The cradles. For the twins.” Fernando let his words sink in. “I think oak is best—stout and strong—but Marcus tells me that cherry is traditional in America. Perhaps Diana would prefer that.”

Matthew picked up his chisel. The worn handle filled his palm. “Rowan. I’ll make them out of rowan for protection.”

Fernando squeezed Matthew’s shoulder with approval and departed.

Matthew dropped the chisel back into the bag. He took out his phone, hesitated, and snapped a photograph. Then he waited.

Diana’s response was swift and made his bones hollow with longing. His wife was in the bath. He recognized the curves of the copper tub in the Mayfair house. But these were not the curves that interested him.

His wife—his clever, wicked wife—had propped the phone on her breastbone and taken a picture down the length of her naked body. All that was visible was the mound of her belly, the skin stretched impossibly tight, and the tips of her toes resting on the curled edge of the tub.

If he concentrated, Matthew could imagine her scent rising from the warm water, feel the silk of her hair between his fingers, trace the long, strong lines of her thigh and shoulder. Christ, he missed her.

“Fernando said you needed lumber.” Marcus was standing before him, frowning.

Matthew dragged his eyes away from the phone. What he needed, only Diana could provide.

“Fernando also said if anyone woke him in the next forty-eight hours, there would be hell to pay,”

Marcus said, looking at the stacks of split logs. They certainly wouldn’t lack firewood this winter. “You know how Ransome loves a challenge—not to mention a brush with the devil—so you can imagine his response.”

“Do tell,” Matthew said with a dry chuckle. He hadn’t laughed in some time, so the sound was rusty and raw. “Ransome has already been on the phone to the Krewe of Muses. I expect the Ninth Ward Marching Band will be here by suppertime. Vampire or no, they’ll rouse Fernando for sure.” Marcus looked down at his father’s leather tool bag. “Are you finally going to teach Jack to carve?” The boy had been begging Matthew for lessons since he arrived.

Matthew shook his head. “I thought he might like to help me make cradles instead.”

Matthew and Jack worked on the cradles for almost a week. Every cut of wood, every finely hewn dovetail that joined the pieces together, every swipe of the plane helped to reduce Matthew’s blood rage.

Working on a present for Diana made him feel connected to her again, and he began to talk about the children and his hopes.

Jack was a good pupil, and his skills as an artist proved handy when it came to carving decorative designs into the cradles. While they worked, Jack asked Matthew about his childhood and how he’d met Diana at the Bodleian. No one else would have gotten away with asking such direct, personal questions, but the rules were always slightly different where Jack was concerned.

When they were finished, the cradles were works of art. Matthew and Jack wrapped them carefully in soft blankets to protect them on the journey back to London.

It was only after the cradles were finished and ready to go that Fernando told Matthew about Diana’s condition.

Matthew’s response was entirely expected. First he went still and silent. Then he swung into action.

“Get the pilot on the phone. I’m not waiting until tomorrow. I want to be in London by morning,”

Matthew said, his tone clipped and precise. “Marcus!”

“What’s wrong?” Marcus said.

“Diana isn’t well.” Matthew scowled ferociously at Fernando. “I should have been told.”

“I thought you had been.” Fernando didn’t need to say anything else. Matthew knew who had kept this from him. Fernando suspected that Matthew knew why as well. Matthew’s usually mobile face turned to stone, and his normally expressive eyes were blank.

“What happened?” Marcus said. He told Jack where to find his medical bag and called for Ransome.

“Diana found the missing page from Ashmole 782.” Fernando took Matthew by the shoulders.

“There’s more. She saw Benjamin at the Bodleian Library. He knows about the pregnancy. He attacked Phoebe.”

“Phoebe?” Marcus was distraught. “Is she all right?”

“Benjamin?” Jack inhaled sharply.

“Phoebe is fine. And Benjamin is nowhere to be found,” Fernando reassured them. “As for Diana, Hamish called Edward Garrett and Jane Sharp. They’re overseeing her case.”

“They’re among the finest doctors in the city, Matthew,” Marcus said. “Diana couldn’t be in better care.”

“She will be,” Matthew said, picking up a cradle and heading out the door. “She’ll be in mine.”

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