Voss adjusted the shoulders of his coat, aligning the seams, then smoothed the lapels and hem. Having been alive for more than a hundred forty years, he'd seen his share of fashions come and goand some of them had been horrific. Thank the Fates that the wigs and long, swinging coats that had been in fashion during all of the upheaval around Charles II had given way to shirts and neckcloths and pantaloons. The tailoring was much more attractive, and showing one's own hair was much preferred after decades of wigs and powder.
But Voss's mind wasn't, for once, wholly on his appearance or how he was going to find a nice plump thigh or two to sample
along with, of course, a bit more intimacy. Instead he was still mulling over the expression on Dimitri's face two nights ago in the back rooms at White's.
Dimitri still hadn't forgiven him for that night in Vienna, and Voss supposed he couldn't wholly blame him. The incident in 1690 that had caused their rift had been a combination of misjudgment and unfortunate happenstance. Voss had long written it off to his inexperience and having only been Dracule for six years at the time. Nevertheless, he should have realized that whatever sense of humor Dimitri had had long been lost after becoming Dracule. Or perhaps he'd never even had one, growing up the son of an English earl during the dark times of Oliver Cromwell and his stark Puritan ways.
But that occasion in Vienna had taken place so long ago that the Plague had still been a threat, and unfortunate as it was, the resulting destruction of Dimitri's property and the death of his mistress had been an accident. Most of the blame was, and rightly should be, laid at the feet of Cezar Moldaviwho'd also been in Vienna.
But however the blame had been distributed, the fact that he'd infuriated Dimitri all those years ago made it more difficult for Voss to get what he needed from him. And the fact was he needed Dimitri's cooperation now that Woodmore was gone. They weren't precisely enemies, Voss and Dimitribut neither did they fully trust each other. It was more as if they were two dogs circling, eyeing each other balefully. With Dimitri doing most of the baleful eyeing, if one was to be wholly honest.
Voss frowned, adjusting the cuff of his shirt. Even if Chas Woodmorewho was not a member of the Dracu-liawasn't dead now, he would be as soon as Cezar Moldavi found him with his sister. It was only a matter of time.
"Bastard's as cold and frigid as a dead mortal," he muttered to himself, thinking of Dimitri and his decades of self-denial of the most basic of needs. Whether it stemmed from the incident with Moldavi and Lerina that night in Vienna, or maybe because of his previous mistress, Meg, he didn't know, but Dimitri's choice was an abstinence worse than chastity. Neither of which were the least bit attractive to Voss.
"Beg pardon, my lord?" said his valet, Kimton, turning from the wardrobe. A variety of rejected neckcloths hung from his fingers and over his arms.
"Nothing," Voss replied, picking up his hat and gloves. He paused one last time to admire the cut of his steel-blue coat and gray, gold and midnight patterned vest. His shirt was crisp and white, and the chosen neckcloth a rich sapphire. He'd chosen to stud it with a black jet pin in the shape of an X.
Or, if looked at from a different angle, a cross. But no one would recognize the irony of that except another Dracule.
He smiled, admired the glint of his fangs as they eased smoothly out to press against his lower lip and flashed a bit of that alluring glow from his pupils. Tonight was going to be a delightful challenge. He wondered which of the Woodmore sisters would fall prey to his charm first. Another game, of course. It didn't really matter which one did, as long as one of them succumbed and he could get the information he needednamely, which of them had the gift of the Sight.
After that, it would be a simple matter to coax the information he wanted from the chit, and then he could be on his way before Woodmore was any wiser. The biggest concern was, however, whether Moldavi knew yet just how valuable the sisters were. The last thing Voss wanted was for Moldavi to realize he could procure his own information from the girls, for it would decidedly deflate Voss's leverage with him. And it would take all of the amusement out of things.
If nothing else, Voss appreciated pleasure and amusement in his life.
After all, when one lived forever, and one was rich as sin, one had to find entertainment and pleasure in order to keep things from becoming mundane. Unfortunately his attempt at amusement and puzzle-solving was precisely what had driven the wedge between him and Dimitri more than a century ago.
But then again, a simple life without pleasure, diversion and the matching of wits would be tedious. Especially when it stretched on for eternity.
Voss ignored the internal rumble of discontent and reached for the handkerchief that Kimton had neatly folded, tucking it into a pocket, giving himself a last critical once-over in the mirror.
It was a relief to return to civilization after spending the majority of the last generation in the Colonies. The man who'd been installed as his father, Lord Dewhurst, had retired from his postwhich was to say, he'd been paid off to live the rest of his years in the mountains of Romania or Switzerlandand Voss had been able to reinstate himself as Dewhurst after a forty-year exile. During that time, he'd managed brief trips to Paris, Vienna, Rome and even London, of course, but he couldn't remain there long and still draw on his accounts.
It was too difficult and certainly impolitic to explain why Viscount Dewhurst never aged, disliked going outside when it was very sunny and preferred the warm rich taste of blood to any vintage or, Luce forbid, the rot they called ale in Boston. And if anyone noticed the extreme resemblance between every other generation of Lord Dewhursts, it was merely written off to a strong family tree.
Voss smiled as he pulled on his own gloves. A strong and quite unique family tree indeed. The fact that he and Dimitri, as well as Cezar Moldavi, sprang from the same widespread branches was merely an irritation in the grand scheme of things. It was fortunate to Voss's way of thinking that his Draculian ancestors, as well as those of Dimitri, Cale and a limited number of others, had found their wives among the British and French peerage and thus had conferred upon them their titles and estates throughout Western Europe. Moldavi's roots, on the other hand, were firmly entrenched in the cold, uncivilized mountains of Transylvania and Romania. Drafty castles and mountainous estates located leagues from anything resembling civilization would not be to Voss's liking. Perhaps that was part of the reason Moldavi was so intent on growing his power over mortal and Dracule alike, and why he'd established himself in Paris, trying to create an ally in Bonaparte.
At the bottom of the stairs of his James Park residence, Voss found his butler, Moross (whom he privately called Morose for obvious reasons), waiting at the door.
"Your carriage, my lord," the man intoned. It wasn't time for his once-a-decade smile, so he merely looked down his long bloodhound face.
"Where's Eddersley? And Brickbank?" Voss asked, glancing at the clock in the foyer. Nearly eleven. They'd been expected by half past ten, and he thought he'd heard voices below as he finished dressing. Everyone in the household knew better than to interrupt him in his toilette.
"Here!" trilled a voice. A very happy voicerather a bit high in pitch to be comfortably masculinewhich belonged to Brickbank. From the sound of it, he'd been into Voss's private vintage in the study. Blast. He'd only been back in London for three days and already Brick-bank was becoming an annoyance.
Yes, Voss was more than ready to make the rounds in Society and take advantage of any offeredor coaxedopportunities therein whilst going about his more urgent business, but there was a time for play and a time for business. To quote a book that he was only vaguely familiar with.
In most cases, however, Voss found a way to combine both business and pleasure.
Brickbank cared for little more than charming a few debutantes in a dark corner to see how far down their gloves would slip. Although Voss wasn't averse to those challenges himself, he had a bit more on his mind than that. With Moldavi riding his tongue along Bonaparte's arse crack, the Draculia cartel in London would be well served by preparedness.
And Voss was in the position to accomplish just that.
The door to the study opened and out tottered Brick-bank, his eyes bright and his nose tinged red. Behind him strode Eddersley, his mop of thick dark hair a mess as usual and a bemused expression on his face. Voss met his eyes and Eddersley shrugged.
"Shall we?" Voss asked coolly, resisting the urge to look at the condition of his study. Morose would see to any disruption with pleasure. "The ball should be in full crush by now."
"You're certain the Woodmore chits will be there?" asked Brickbank, bumping against him as they both moved toward the front door. "Abhor stuffy crushes."
"By all accounts they will. At least, the two elder ones. Unless Corvindale has locked them away already,"
Voss replied, stepping back so that his clumsy friend could precede him through the front door.
Eddersley gave a short laugh. "Dimitri likely hasn't yet met them. He'd be in no hurry to accept his responsibility as their guardian, temporary or otherwise. That would mean actually speaking to a mortaland a female one at thatand removing himself from his study."
Voss nodded, smiling to himself. He'd given Corvindale the news only two nights ago; even he wouldn't have moved that quickly to get the girls under his roof and safe from Moldavi. And that was precisely the reason he was taking himself off to the Lundhames' ball tonight.
There were rumors about the Woodmore girls and their abilities, of coursewhich was why Dimitri had become ensnared in a mess that he surely would prefer to be left out ofbut whether those rumors about the sisters and their secrets had yet reached the streets of Paris, and thus the ears of Moldavi, was uncertain. Since the war and the new Emperor Bonaparte's subsequent buildup of brigades ready to invade England, even those who were Dracule had a bit more difficulty with expedient communication.
Chas Woodmore had done his best to keep his sisters and their abilities under wraps while at the same time making himself indispensable to Corvindale and other members of the Draculia. It was too bad Wood-more didn't trust Voss enough to turn the guardianship of his sisters over to him, instead of Corvindale. That would have made things much simpler.
The three men climbed into the carriage and Voss settled himself on the green velvet seat. Eddersley and Brickbank found their places across from him, and he rapped on the ceiling. The conveyance started off with nary a jolt and he peered out the window as they drove through St. James. As they rumbled along, the wheels quick and smooth over the cobbles below, Voss found himself less interested in the conversation of his companions than the sights outside the window.
A new moon gave no assistance to the faulty oil lamps illuminating the streets, exposing little but the shadows of random persons making their way along the walkways. The houses and shops, cluttered and clustered together in a jumbled-together fashion so unlike that in the sprawling Colonies, rose like unrelieved black walls on either side of the street. The only texture in that solid dark rise was the occasional alley or mews, just as dark and dangerous.
To mortals, anyway.
Voss felt oddly prickly tonight, as if something irregular were about to happen.
Perhaps it was simply that he'd not been out in London Society for years, although he would never ascribe his unsettled feeling to nerves. A one-hundred-forty-eight-year-old vampire simply didn't have nervous energy
even when he came face-to-face with his own weakness, which, in the case of Voss, was the unassuming hyssop plant.
Each of them, each Dracule, had a personal Astheniaan Achilles' heel or vulnerability, or whatever one wanted to call it. Other than a wooden stake to the heart, a blade bent on severing head from body or full sunlight, the Asthenia was the only real threat to a member of the Draculia. And even then, the Asthenia caused only pain and great weaknesswhich often allowed for the stake, sword or sun to do its business.
Not that the Dracule ever discussed or even disclosed this frailty. It was a personal thing, akin to having a flaccid member at the most inopportune moments. Never spoken of, never acknowledged, never dissected. There was, as Giordan Cale had once said, honor among thieves, pirates and the Draculia.
Yet, in an attempt to keep his mind occupied and in a bid for personal amusement as well as leverage in the event he needed it, Voss had made a sort of game of it to determine the Asthenias of his Draculian brothers. He considered it nothing more than each man's unique puzzle, and by craft, cunning or mere observation, he had determined the weaknesses of many of his associates.
It was nothing he hadn't been doing for years, for Voss had long been a trained observer. He'd grown up the youngest child and long-awaited heir, and he spent much of his youth eluding tutors and spying on his five elder sisters.
At an early age, he discovered that information was power and that secrets were leverage. His sisters doted on him, spoiled him and easily succumbed to his manipulations, paying him in sweetmeats or playtime when he threatened to divulge who was kissing whose beau, sneaking into the barn with a footman and "borrowing" another sibling's clothing and shoes. The price became even higher when said beau belonged to another sister, or when the gown in question mysteriously reappeared in the owner's wardrobe, torn or stained.
He considered it all in good fun, and as a result, Voss ate plenty of jumballs, candied rosemary and rosewater fritters as well as earned games of chess or backgammon from his sisters or their beaus.
When he turned fifteen and went off to school, Voss realized that his tendency toward observation and manipulation was no longer a simple matter of entertainment, but personal security, as well. The upperclassmen at Eton leeched almost immediately onto the pretty blond boy who tended toward the scrawny side, tossing him into the privy on his second day of school. That shock, after having been petted and fussed over for his young life, caused Voss to look at the world of men quite differently.