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Chapter Three

Carina appeared within the quarter hour and announced in a petulant voice that their chamber had been made ready. Murmuring, "If you'll follow me," with the minimum amount of deference, she led the way to the prepared rooms at the top of the stairs, then turned and left the couple to fend for themselves. Their travelling cloaks had been brushed and were lying atop a small chest that sat at the foot of the massive bed. A blazing fire burned in the hearth, and the bed was newly dressed with fresh linens. A copper warmer had been filled with hot coals, and Francisa clapped her hands together in delighted surprise. A squat pitcher of wine sat on the bedside table, as well as a ewer of clear water for bathing. A spread of meats, cheeses and bread was laid out beside the wine. Although the serving maid appeared flighty, she had seen to their every need.

"You should eat, Francisa," Nicholas advised in a concerned tone. "You'll need your strength."

"You are my only food, Nicholas, and I shall draw my strength from yours," was Francisa's reply. She had no idea her words would prove so true.

Francisa moved to the fireplace, bending to fetch a brand to light a candle or two about the room. Suddenly, she felt strong arms around her waist, and her feet left the floor. Just as abruptly, with very little sensation of movement, she found herself several feet away. Nicholas had somehow placed himself in the great armchair by the hearth, and Francisa was perched on his lap. A mischievous grin graced his pale lips, and his eyes twinkled with amusement at her slightly bewildered expression.

Recovering her composure, Francisa wasted little time in exploiting her new position. It seemed Nicholas was of a like mind, for his lips met hers part way in a kiss that seared her mouth with an admixture of fire and ice. She gasped, breathless, as they broke apart. Nicholas buried his face in the valley between her breasts, drinking in the fruit-fresh scent of her with the full measure of his unnatural senses. Arching back in pleasure, Francisa clasped his head and kept it pressed to her chest. Her heartbeat was loud in his ears, a gentle rhythm that quickened its pace as he listened, like the thunder of a fast approaching storm.

Pulling his lips from the satiny skin of her breasts, he kissed a trail to her collarbones, sank into the hollow of her throat and rounded her chin to again find her eager mouth. He teased her lower lip with his teeth, careful not to break her skin. The night would be long, and he wanted to give Francisa as much pleasure as he himself would garner from their coupling. A taste of her blood now would drive him over the brink of the dark chasm, and throw down the wall he had carefully erected to cage the beast.

Nicholas withdrew his lips from hers, and chuckled softly as she pouted her displeasure. As he began to unlace the tiny fastenings of her decolletage, a look of kindling passion washed over her features. Francisa raised trembling fingers in aid of his, and soon her chemise lay gaping. Nicholas freed her breasts and lifted each one in his hands. Kneading the soft mounds of flesh, he lowered his mouth to first one rosy nipple, then the other. They budded into hardness beneath his ministrations, the chill of his tongue causing her aureoles to crinkle in response. Her moan of pleasure encouraged him, and he gave his full attention to continuing her enjoyment.

Francisa had never felt a man's hands touch her thusly, and she was amazed at the abandon his had inspired in her. She felt the alien hardness of his erect penis against her derriere, and felt the moist heat of her own desire beneath the quilting of her heavy undergown. Suddenly the dress was too cloying, too restrictive, and Francisa yearned to rip it from her body. She wanted his hands to roam the length of her, not be confined to her breasts. She imagined what his cool fingers would feel like against the burning heat of her own pulsing desire.

Again it seemed their minds were linked, for one of Nicholas' hands strayed past her narrow waist. He fisted aside the rich material, and searched out the soft triangle of her pubic hair. Her thighs parted in anticipation, and her breath caught in her throat as his fingers found the hub of her desire. Rubbing her clitoris gently between thumb and forefinger, but with a rhythm that seemed to match the staccato beat of her heart, he stirred a loud moan from the young woman on his lap. His mouth silenced hers, the kiss deep and mutual, their tongues moving in a parallel motion to their hips.

Nicholas growled his frustration at having so little access to her warm skin. She echoed with a throaty purr of her own, giving her consent, her encouragement to continue. Nicholas needed no further urging. He stood easily and carried Francisa to the bed, his supernatural strength making her weight negligible in his arms. Setting her down on her feet, he pushed aside the shoulders of her heavy tabard; Francisa stepped free of the stamped and embroidered velvet piled around her feet, removing the matching brocade slippers in the same graceful movement. Nicholas reached behind her, and with a deft motion, freed the lacings that held her jewelled undergown in place. He felt as if he were unveiling a portrait of great worth from its heavy protective wrappings. Before his enamored gaze, she raised her delicately boned hands and smoothed the light chemise where it encased her arms and breasts, her movements slow and langorous, designed to enflame her lover. Nicholas could wait no longer. He locked his teeth in the delicate cotton of her chemise, quickly peeling the final layer which denied him access to the full expanse of her creamy flesh. With a practiced ease, he removed the filmy undergarment and let it slither to the wooden floor. He pressed a passionate kiss to her shoulder, then tossed her gently atop the feather quilt to await his pleasure.

His eyes were ringed with gold as his sight ravaged her, swept over her with a palpable heat, as he took in every feature of her nubile body. Their gazes remained locked as he made a show of slowly removing his belt and leather ankle boots. Gripping the pleated skirt, he pulled the velvet tunic over his head; his form-fitting undershirt soon followed and joined Francisa's garments in an untidy heap on the floor. Her eyes were just as appreciative as he slid the parti-colored hose over his hips, eased them down his straight legs and stepped out of them gracefully. His erect penis, pale and hard like a fine marble column, was freed from its woolen prison at long last.

Francisa raised her arms in supplication, and Nicholas quickly obliged his love by joining her on the wide bed. She took his weight atop her and wrapped her arms about his neck. His lips plummeted to capture her lips beneath his with the swiftness of a hawk seeking its prey. Her mouth opened to his questing tongue as her fingers tangled in his silky hair.

Francisa felt the change in Nicholas as he lifted from her and rolled aside. His breathing was ragged, and his eyes had turned a deep golden, as if a candle flame were captured beneath his lids. When he spread his lips, she could just spy the glint of each elongated canine, the evidence of glorious danger she longed to embrace. For just a moment when he stared at her, he ceased to be the man she loved and became the predator with no hint of a human soul. She felt a jagged frisson of fear and tried to move away, but the vampire flung his leg across her thighs to keep his prey within his grasp.

The knight must have felt the seed of doubt from the young mortal, and it was enough to spark the tenuous control he had maintained for the many months that he had courted and pursued her. His eyes lost most of their burnished hue and his canines retracted into their sheaths. His voice was still somewhat harsh, but he had regained enough of his human mien to temper his words with compassion and love.

"We are at the crossroads, Francisa," he warned her. "You must make your decision. I cannot go on without harming you if you choose not to follow my path into the darkness."

Her features took on a worried cast, but her voice was sure as she responded. "I want to be with you, Nicholas."

"You are afraid. I felt it."

She opened her mouth to deny the accusation, but she had promised herself to be honest. "I was afraid, for a moment, for it seemed the man I loved was taken from me."

"I am not a man, Francisa," Nicholas corrected in a low voice, "but a vampire."

The young woman turned her head away, but Nicholas would not allow her to evade the truth. He gripped her chin between his thumb and forefinger, and gently but insistently pulled her face back so that their eyes met once again. His hand fell away, yet he swept a finger tentatively across her jawbone and settled it over the artery pulsing hotly so close to the surface of her skin. His ears caught the erratic pulse of her blood as it coursed through her veins, and he had to tear himself away, lest the sound hypnotize him with its seductive song. He snatched his hand back, and quickly put another span between them for her safety and his comfort.

"I have asked before, but now your response will guide our actions here tonight. Do you trust me?"

"I trust you with my life, Nicholas," she responded as she had each and every time he had asked.

"I hope that is so, Francisa, for to accept this gift of eternal life that is exactly what you must do. You must give your life to me for safe-keeping, step across the threshold into another existence, and receive your life back as I guide you out of the light." Growing introspective as he focused on the events of his own crossing, he concluded, "The journey is not an easy one to make."

"With you as my guide, I am sure I will make the journey unhindered by fear or doubt," she murmured.

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