At times he missed the splendour of the Victorian ballrooms of his youth: crystal chandeliers glittering in the mixed haze of smoke and body heat, light reflecting off the jewels of the women, corseted and crimped, the clamour of talk and laughter over the music of the dance. This dance, at a stately home in Somerset, was a fair replica.
Prowling through the crowd, his eyes were drawn to a woman in a simple red dress that displayed her well-shaped calves. In a room full of glistening floor length creations, she shone with a light of her own making; short black hair gleaming as it swung round a radiant face in which blue eyes sparkled like sapphires. Her lust for life called to him across the space between them.
A hand on his arm arrested his progress and he spun, quicker than possible for a mortal man, the snarl on his face providing a glimpse of the demon within. When he saw who it was his features settled back into handsome arrogance. “Found something you like, pet?” he asked, eyes flicking to the strangely dazed man beside her.
Raising her pale arms above her head, his lover spun around gracefully, making the black beads of her dress tinkle. “Don't play too long with your food tonight, Spike,” she said, swaying gently from side to side to music only she could hear. “Remember, Miss Edith is home alone and,” she leaned forward to whisper confidentially, “they tell me there are monsters afoot.” With a small mysterious smile she slowly spun again.
He watched, amused, as the man beside her clumsily echoed her movement. She was stunning, as always, though she had done something with her dark hair to make it look short. He assumed it was more in keeping with the fashion of this time but he preferred it long and free. He raised his hand to caress a dark strand that framed her face. “It’s true, about the monsters. Though they are beautiful - beautiful and deadly.”
“And you, with your poetic soul, the most dangerous of all.” She gave him a smile so tender it made his heart sing, but then her eyes lost what little focus they had. “One day, my sweet William, you’ll burn so bright they won’t be able to look away.”
A cold shiver ran down his spine, unsure if this was one of her visions or the effect of the alcohol in her snack’s blood. He hoped for the latter because he didn't fancy burning for anyone’s entertainment.
“Hurry up, now - think of poor Miss Edith,” she hissed. She turned to her dance partner: eyes narrowing, mouth arching into a cold, commanding smile, her voice dismissive, “You don’t look very pretty anymore, I think you should go away.”
He kept his eyes on her as she led the poor fool to a seat, abandoning him for the next shiny bauble that passed. He was glad she seemed to be following their agreement to sip from many rather than quench her thirst on one. They did not need a trail of dead bodies to mark their path. He resumed his journey towards his target.
As Phryne finished telling her story to the flock of male admirers that had gathered around, she raised her arm high, champagne glass in hand, only to have it hit a strangely solid object and feel something cold wrap around her wrist - not tight but firm. She spun round, immediately on the defensive… only to find herself staring into a pair of eyes so enchanting that, for a split second, she almost forgot the blue eyes she'd left behind in Melbourne. “Let go of my hand,” she demanded.
He released her instantly, tilting his head politely.
“Thank you,” she said, without an ounce of sincerity, fighting the urge to rub her wrist in front of this stranger.
He bowed his head ever so slightly, looking effortlessly suave in his black tuxedo and ignoring her tone. “My apologies, I was passing behind you and feared being struck. I sincerely hope I did not hurt you.”
She looked slightly abashed at this most reasonable of explanations. “Oh, I am sorry - I didn’t think.”
He let one side of his mouth lift in an almost-smile. “A dance, I think, will repay all trepasses.”
Phryne smiled at his old-fashioned language and wondered whether he was telling the truth about the glass. As he gracefully held out his hand, she surprised herself by accepting it and letting him lead her on to the dance floor.
“Are you alone?” he murmured into her ear as the dance brought them close.
“No,” she lied.
“A shame,” he gave her the most wickedly promising smile she had ever seen, “are you sure?”
Attractive and enticing as he was, with light brown waves of hair fighting the pomade that held it from his face, sharp cheekbones and a lean, poised bearing - she felt uneasy. “I am very sure,” she confirmed.
“Tell me about him, then,” he said, tightening his arms around her.
Now, she was definitely uncomfortable - there was something distinctly predatory about this man. As though sensing he had pushed too far he loosened his grip and focused on the dance. It was like nothing she had ever experienced before. He didn’t dance with her so much as flow around her like water, electrifying and overwhelming. When the music stopped, he led her off the floor, and before she realised it they were standing on the verandah overlooking the gardens.
“I should go, Jack will be looking for me.” She tried to pull away.
“You’re not here with anyone,” he replied calmly, refusing to release her hand. “You’re alone. There’s no ‘Jack’ coming to your rescue.”
This statement made her angry. “There most assuredly is a Jack but I don’t need him to rescue me.”
“Don't you?” He spun her round so she was facing out towards the garden and stepped close, trapping her between the stone balustrade and his body.
“What do you think…”
“Shush,” his voice little more than a whisper as the icy fingers of one of his hands found her throat and his other arm wrapped around her waist - an obscene parody of a lover’s embrace. She shuddered. “We’re just talking, my pretty. I want to hear more about your Jack. Is he, for example, the type of man who would protect you from evil in the shadows?”
His fingers stroked lazily up and down her throat, leaving a chill on her skin. She fought the almost paralysing fear flowing through her body and managed to nod her head.
“Has he ever saved your life?”
She thought of that night on the ship with Sidney. “Yes, he shot a man for me once.”
“He has proven himself then? Tell me more and if your tale is good perhaps I’ll let him save you this time too.”
She rallied at the further suggestion that she needed help from a man, any man. “I don’t need him to save me, I can…”
The fingers pressed into her throat, making it impossible for her to talk. “I admire your spirit, but believe me when I say the only way you can save yourself is to talk about him.” The pressure on her throat eased just enough for her to speak. “Do you love him?”
The pressure disappeared but the fingers remained on her neck, an icy reminder. “Excellent, I appreciate a good love story. Where is he tonight?”
“On board a ship coming from Australia.”
“Yes, I asked him to come after me.”
“Yet you feel no loyalty to him, dancing and flirting with whom you please? What would your Jack think of that?”
She made a sound of disdain - who was this man to judge their relationship? “He’s a man, not a child. There’s no one here he would feel the need to compete with.”
“No. I think you’re playing a game, dragging him across the world just to break his heart,” he accused her. His voice took on a lethal edge. “Perhaps I should snap your neck now, and save him from himself.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she spat out. Chilled air brushed against the side of her face, almost as if it was his breath, but that surely wasn't possible. She shuddered again, but this time to check how much wriggle room she had. Trapped as she was between the stone and his body, both equally unyielding, there was no possibility of reaching the knife in her garter. Talking until a way to escape presented itself seemed her only option.
“And you should be careful. After all, you never know what monsters are around.” He sounded amused.
“I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of monsters,” she shot back.
“Interesting.” The fingers withdrew completely from her throat, the hand moving to rest on her shoulder. “But we were not talking about you. Tell me - your true knight, does he wear a favour from you?”
She thought hard, what was he talking about? Then it dawned on her, the chivalric code, not her topic of choice but she knew enough Arthurian nonsense to get by - she hoped. “Yes, his hat, he wears it always. I bought it for him, after his last one was shot off.”
“Hmmm... And what token have you of his devotion?”
“I have my brooch. I can show you, if you like.” This could be her chance, if she could free her hands…
“I think, my daring one, a description will do,” he said as though reading her mind, which at this point wouldn't have surprised her.
“It’s a blue swallow.”
“A swallow? Is he a poet as well as a warrior then? Although swallows mate for life,” he arched an eyebrow, “from what I’ve observed I doubt that’s your style.”
“They won’t mate in captivity, but if they’re free they’ll always come home,” she countered.
“Ah, a realist then, your Jack,” he chuckled his appreciation.
She decided that attack would be the best approach now. “Is this your hobby, to isolate and attack defenceless women?”
This made him laugh. “There is no such thing as a defenceless woman and you, I suspect, are less so than most. I’ve had men twice your size who couldn't resist me with even half the determination you have.”
Phryne sensed this was a genuine compliment. He seemed to admire her, and she could work with that. “A woman’s strength is more than just physical,” she pointed out.
She felt him shake with laughter this time. “I am well aware of that, my fearless one, though I’ve known women strong enough to snap me in half - they're the ones I like the most.”
It was an interesting statement but not one she wanted to consider just now.
There was a change in the air, and Spike looked up. He heard sounds of a struggle, a life and death struggle. Bloody hell! Had they not just discussed this - there weren’t supposed to be any bodies. He had let himself be distracted for too long, and this was her way of showing him that she would not be ignored. If a corpse was to be avoided he needed to move - now. He turned back to the woman he had trapped. It was time to end this and move on, perhaps back to London - he hated the countryside, there were too many pitchforks for his liking. “It would appear that fortune truly does favour the brave.”
The weight that held her pinned disappeared, freeing her hands. She grabbed her dagger, spinning quickly to plunge it in his heart. Slightly dramatic, but her instincts were screaming that she had only one chance. This man had killed before, she could hear it in his voice. She would strike now and worry about the consequences later. Jack would be here in a few days and he would help build a case for self defence.
She nearly tumbled - he had vanished, seemingly into thin air, and she was alone.
Five days later, Spike stood on a poorly lit street corner staring up at the handsome couple waltzing alone on a London hotel balcony. The man wore a black tuxedo and she was elegantly draped in gold cloth that flowed to the floor, the perfection of her shoulders and neck emphasised by the cut of her dress. There was no music to mark the beat; not that they needed it - they were completely in step.
“Oh… how romantic,” his black goddess appeared at his side. “Shall we split them between us? A pair of lovers for we two lovers? We’ll make them watch each other whilst we drain their life's blood. He’s very handsome and looks like fun but it would be a prettier picture if I took her.” She grabbed his hand to pull him towards the entrance of the hotel.
He didn't move, despite her tugging. The wind had blown the ghost of their conversation down to his ears, and he had recognised the annoying twang of an Antipodean accent. He looked closer at the dark haired woman. Could it be? His enhanced vision caught the flash of blue on her chest.
“No, pet, not them.”
She looked at him, confused. “But they’re strong and healthy, and I'm hungry.”
Dressed as she was in a long cloak of black velvet that absorbed all light, with her hair falling freely around her shoulders, the pout she gave nearly brought his good intentions crashing down... almost. “There’s plenty elsewhere. Leave them be. As a gift, for me?”
She gave him a look that would have pierced his very soul, if he had one. “There is, I think, something not quite right with you. You cannot be both the dragon and the champion, dear heart - it will tear you apart.”
He turned away from the balcony, drawing her into his arms, his dark overcoat whipping around them in the wind. “Dru, promise me. Not them, not ever.”
She stared over his shoulder, long and hard, memorising their forms. If she was going to make a promise, she would keep it. Unless she decided not to, of course.
“For you, my misplaced hero,” she agreed.
He dropped his head and crushed his cold lips against hers.