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Chapter One

The frozen ground crunched beneath her slippers as she ran from the house. The squares of firelight were left far behind, like the warm comforts of a down quilt. Now only the moonlight provided the illumination for her to make her way into the forest, its blue-green glow casting deceptive shadows upon the grass. A chill wind sighed in the upper reaches of the trees, and the thin keening was akin to a babe's frightened cry in the night.

They cannot send me away, she thought frantically. I must stay here. Here, where my love awaits.

As if from the bottom of a deep well, she heard a woman's voice plaintively calling her name. She did not turn, only lifted her heavy skirts higher in order to race beyond the sound of her nurse's voice. Faster and faster she ran, the snow kicked up in little puffs of white, like the powder from her dressing table. Her heart pounded with the effort to keep to her speed. Labored breath escaped from her lips in transparent bursts of steam.

At last, dozens of yards from the house and far beyond the sight or sense of it, she came to a rest against the knotted bole of an ancient tree. All lay about her in silence, even the small forest creatures in their den asleep on such a cold night. She shivered in her sable-lined cloak, and pulled its edges closed across the scarlet velvet of her costly gown.

A slight sound pulled her around to face further into the jumble of trees and brambles that lined her father's orchards. Peering steadily into the gloom with wide eyes showed her nothing, yet her other senses foretold a presence. She slowly turned her back to her visitor, pretending not to feel his arrival in her bones, in her heart, in the core of her that only he could touch.

Pale hands gripped her shoulders, and though the night was deadly cold, she felt the chill of his flesh through the double layer of her cloak and the fine tooled leather of his gauntlets. The hands were gentle, yet demanding, as her lover turned her within his arms. A great elation filled her and she buried herself in his strong embrace with a wordless cry of joy. The tall knight returned the embrace fiercely, with barely leashed desire. Her scent drove him mad, yet he was tender, gentle as he pushed her back to gaze into her eyes.

"Francisa," he whispered as softly as the falling snow, "my love." Stripping the gloves from his hands, he tucked them into his belt, then tipped her chin up with one long finger until she met his eyes.

"Nicholas," she breathed, her voice caressing his name.

Francisa looked upon this man, this fantasy, with a desire as great as his own. He was the most beautiful creature she had ever chanced to see. Nicholas was tall and lithe, with eyes the color of cornflowers and hair like spun silk. She reached up to touch it, reveling in its softness as the flaxen locks slipped through her splayed fingers. She ran her hand over his ear, tracing its outline, then took the picture of his face with both palms spread over his cheekbones. She discovered his lips, and he parted them beneath her questing fingers, nipping the tips playfully, careful not to pierce her delicate skin.

Taking her hands in his, he trailed kisses of icy fire from palm to wrist, catching the excited beat of her heart with his tongue. Unable to resist any longer, he crushed Francisa against his chest and his lips found hers with a swiftness that stole the breath from her lungs. His hands cradled her head, slipped sensuously down the hollow of her spine and rounded her derriere until she moaned and molded the full length of her body closer to his. Stepping back, Nicholas nimbly lifted the cloak from her shoulders and spread it on the ground at her feet. Offering his hand, he helped her down to its inviting warmth and softness, his eyes roaming over her face with love and passion. He lowered his mouth to the rounded valley between her breasts, and bestowed light kisses, eliciting a series of throaty laughs from the young woman beneath him. His seductive ministrations raised the beat of her heart to a fevered pitch; his own matched the staccato rhythm of her growing desire.

Though coherent speech had all but fled, she whispered his name again, like a prayer. "Nicholas, take me. I am not whole without you."

"Francisa, it is dangerous."

She shook her head in denial, her ebony hair catching the wan moonlight. He smoothed the heavy locks from her face, then kissed her nose, her cheeks, his cool breath raising the gooseflesh along her arms. "I care nothing for the danger. All I know is that we must be as one."

She pulled his head down and pressed it to her throat. His lips found the artery, but he merely trailed his tongue in a line along its blue length, the heat just barely contained below the sun-colored skin. Nicholas wanted that heat, wanted that life. Supported on arms above her, he let the desire flood his eyes with gold. His fangs budded and dropped into place. A low growl issued from deep in his chest. Dipping his head swiftly, Nicholas sought out the mortal woman's full mouth. Catching her lower lip in his teeth, he pierced the tender flesh with one sharp canine. Dulcet blood, hot with suppressed lust, poured over his tongue and into his mouth; his throat worked to swallow the sweet nectar of her life. The demon, now loosed, fell upon her throat. His fangs sank into the artery, and she stiffened with pain, until the erotic suckling moved her beyond the discomfort and into a world of ever-growing passion.

So, this is what it is to love a vampire, she thought, lifted by wave upon wave of pleasure. May it never end.

It had to end though. Francisa knew the truth in her heart. If this continued, she would die, and then she would have her love no more. Struggling against the sensations flooding her every nerve, she pushed weakly against the creature above her. Finding her voice was difficult, but she managed to whisper his name hoarsely, as a prayer or a plea. Nicholas did not respond. The vampire had taken full control of his will. Francisa pushed harder, desperation making her stronger, but still he suckled at her throat, drawing from her warmth and life. She knew she must try something more forceful if she were to survive; she raised a hand to his cheek, and quickly, before she could contemplate the ramifications of such an action, gouged four deep furrows into Nicholas' cheek with her nails. Again, she pushed against his chest and sharply cried his name.

The vampire growled deeply in his throat, but the lines of pain brought him back some human awareness, some measure of control. As he heard her laboring heartbeat in his ears and caught the tangy scent of her sweat and tears, he jerked back, alarmed. He reared up on stiffened arms, a horrified expression casting a pall over his otherwise handsome features. Scuttling backwards, he put some distance between himself and the sweet scent of her blood, but still it called to him like a siren's song. Nicholas moved further away, intending to leave, until a small sound from Francisa drew him back.

"No, don't go," she cried plaintively, stretching out a slender hand in entreaty.

"There is danger should I remain, Francisa," he replied in a voice colored with hunger.

His eyes glowed golden with need, and his fangs had not retracted, yet she was unafraid. Francisa could not turn away from him. She had pledged her love and trust so many months past, and it was not in her nature to renege on her promises. "I am not afraid, Nicholas," she assured him quietly. Her hand shook as she raised it to the twin wounds in her neck, though from fear or cold Nicholas was unsure.

"You should be."

"I cannot. I should not have hurt you. Your cheek -- I am sorry..." She trailed off when he turned his face aside.

The moonlight showed smooth, pale flesh where mere moments before there had been deep scratches. His vampire nature had healed them before her eyes.

"I am fine, Francisa. You did well to bring me to my senses." His lids drooped closed as the remembered sensations of her blood pouring into him, the soft flesh of her throat beneath his lips, the fresh scent of her hair, played through his mind. "I must go," he said as he opened his eyes, cutting off the internal play of emotions.

The bright orbs were still jewel-like, but the cat-like topaz had been traded for a brilliant aquamarine. She nearly lost herself in that liquid gaze, but she shifted and began to rise to her feet. Unsteady from the loss of blood and the near shock, Francisa lost her balance. She would have fallen to her knees, wrapped in the yards of velvet skirt, had Nicholas not risen and moved to assist her in the blink of an eye. He lifted the fur-lined cloak and settled it lovingly around her shoulders, then his hands encircled her small waist, and he drew her close. Her head came to just below his chin and, tempted beyond his ability to control, he kissed her lavender-scented tresses.

Francisa tilted her head back, and Nicholas took the opportunity to trail kisses across her forehead, over her cheeks and down the slope of her freckled nose with a feather's touch. Her mouth was a mere finger's breadth from his, and her sweet breath warmed his lips. Her eyes, like a pool of liquid jade, were an invitation. Raising her hand to tangle her fingers in the nimbus of hair that surrounded his face like a golden wreath, she pulled his face down to meet hers with gentle insistence. Their lips touched fleetingly, and Francisa felt complete again. And then, she was standing on her own, her cloak still stirring in the breeze his departure had made. She turned, calling his name, but only the tree frogs and crickets spoke in the moonlight.

Wearily, Francisa made her solitary way back to her father's home, the promise of a warm fire so very welcome. She felt frozen to her very soul, and it was only the memory of flashing eyes, a disarming smile and strong arms that allowed her to keep a steady pace.

Oh, Nicholas, my Nicholas, I shall make you mine own yet, she promised herself. Yes, you shall be mine.

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