In the Face of Death (Madelaine de Montalia #2)

Chapter 9

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Madelaine did not go after him. "Then we must make the most of the short time we have, so that our joy will be greater than your hurt, and you will remember our time together with happiness." She did not add that she longed for his ecstasy to sustain her in the long, empty months ahead.

"How can we?" He met her eyes in the dimness. "Why take the risk? We have been discreet so far, but I must resist my impulse to set caution aside."

"Why? Who is to know what passes between us? When we are private, there is no reason for caution," said Madelaine, feeling some of his contained anguish as her own.

"No reason? Can you not think of one?" He shook his head, unwilling to look directly at her any longer. "It may be there is the greatest reason of all, for when we are alone together, I have no strength to resist you."

"You are managing to resist me well enough now," she said, more sharply than she had intended.

"Do you think so?" he asked, his voice very quiet and deep, the lines in his face severe.

The silence between them lengthened, opening as if it were a chasm deep as the pits of hell. A scuttling in the underbrush as a fox hurried to find his supper provided a momentary distraction, then Madelaine took a step toward him, her hands turned palms up. 'Tecumseh, do you recall what I told you of the bond the blood makes between us?"

His features grew less formidable, and he reached out to caress her face as if compelled to do it. "Yes, Madelaine. How can I forget?"

"Then believe that when we are parted, we will not be separated," she said as she touched his fingers.

He put his hands into hers but would not close the gap between them. "What else would you call it?"

For once she had an answer. "Tell me, when you cannot see the sun or stars, do you still know which direction is north?"

"North?" he repeated, baffled, and then said, "Yes, of course."

"And how do you know it?" she asked him.

He frowned, hitching up one shoulder. "I… sense it."

She nodded. "Then understand that I will always sense you, no matter where you are, or where you go. It is the way of those of us who have become vampires."

He winced at this last. "Vampires."

"Yes," she confirmed.

He regained his skepticism with effort. "For heaven's sake, isn't there another word for it? What a ludicrous notion. Vampires. Legends for the credulous and childish. Surely there is another explanation to account for what has happened." He lacked conviction, but he glowered at her, anyway. "How can you expect me to believe such a fable?"

"I don't," she said wearily. "But it is still the truth. Oh, I have read that Polidori tale, and the little horrors Hoffmann writes, and I cannot blame you for how you think of us. If I were not what I am, I would be inclined to feel as you do, and scoff at the very idea of vampires." She came a step nearer to him. "But I am what you may become, and you need to know the dangers you may face."

His laughter crackled, brittle as autumn leaves. "Very well, you have warned me. If we continue as lovers, I could become a vampire when I die if my spine or my nervous system or my body is not destroyed. I will have to avoid direct sunlight and running water and mirrors. That covers all the hazards, I think. Yes, and I will need my native Ohio earth to sustain me. And blood. Should it come to pass, I will take the precautions you advise, on the odd chance they may be necessary." Then, with a deep sound that was half sigh, half groan, he pulled her into his arms again and bent to open her mouth with his own.

San Francisco, 30 August,

In the last ten days I have seen Tecumseh once, and that was in his carriage with his children, taking them on an outing to the Chinese market where Willy had purchased a paper kite in the shape of a dragon's head that he was attempting to fly off the back of the carriage, which annoyed the horses. Tecumseh was meticulously polite, doing nothing anyone could construe as paying untoward attention to me, but his eyes were haunted. Why he should be so distant now, I do not know, but it saddens me…

Rain was turning the streets from dust to mud as the afternoon wound down toward night. Along the streets, lamps were being lit early to stave off the coming darkness as the first storm of autumn whipped over the hills.

Madelaine sat at her desk, busying herself with writing, when she heard the knocker on the front door. She looked up, annoyed at the interruption, recalling that Olga had taken the evening off. Clicking her tongue impatiently, Madelaine blotted the half-finished page and reached to pull a vast woolen shawl around her shoulders before hurrying to the front of the house to answer the urgent summons.

"Madelaine," said William Tecumseh Sherman as the door swung open. He was wet and bedraggled, his hair quenched of fire and rain-slicked to his skull. He glanced over his shoulder at the street. "May I come in? Will you let me?"

"Tecumseh," said Madelaine, holding the door wider. "Welcome."

His head bowed, he hesitated, and asked in a whisper, "You are willing to speak to me? After my inexcusable behavior?"

Perplexed, Madelaine stepped aside to admit him. "Certainly. Come in. You have done nothing that would keep me from knowing you. What do you want?" It was the only question that came clearly to mind, and it was out before she could soften or modify it in any way.

He pressed the door closed quickly. "I don't think anyone saw me." he said cautiously.

"Possibly not," said Madelaine, her bafflement increasing as she looked at him. "You are soaked to the skin."

"It doesn't matter," he said, squaring his shoulders and daring to look directly into her violet eyes. "I have been a fool and a coward, and I wouldn't blame you if you tossed me out on my ass."

Had she truly been as young as she looked, Madelaine might have taken advantage of the offer; as it was, she shook her head. "No, I won't do that. But I have a few questions I hope you will answer." She indicated the way to the parlor.

"Thank you, Madame," he said with unwonted humility. He turned and locked the door himself, leaning against it as if he had been pursued by the hounds of hell. "Let me say what I must, Madelaine; if you stop me, my courage may fail me, and then I will be thrice-damned." He looked directly at her, keeping his voice quite low. "I have chastised myself every day for not coming to you, and with every passing day it grew more difficult to act at all. I have all but convinced myself that you do not wish to see me because of my cravenness. So I must come to you now, or mire hopelessly in my own inaction. Poor Hamlet had to bear the same trouble, in his way; I don't think I ever grasped the full scope of his predicament until now." He passed his hand over his eyes. "I'm maundering. Forgive me; I don't want to do that." He straightened up and moved a few steps to stand directly hi front of her. "I'm no stranger to suffering. I have not yet fought a war, but I have seen men fall of fatal wounds, in Seminole ambushes, and I have held my comrades while they bled to death so that they would not be wholly alone."

"What has that to do with you and me?" Madelaine asked, growing confused.

"Let me continue," he said forcefully. "There are things I should have said to you days ago."

She realized now how determined he was. "If you think it is necessary, go on."

Sherman took a stance as if to fend off attack. "You would think that one who is… or, rather, has been a soldier would not have such weakness." He held up his hands to stop any protests she might make. Now he looked away, unwilling to let Madelaine see the shine of tears in his eyes.

"Tecumseh…" Madelaine said gently, searching for a phrase to end his self-condemnation.

He fixed her with his gaze, determined to admit his faults. "You have been so self-possessed, that I—"

"I may appear that way to you, but I am far from feeling so, you may believe," she said, hoping to turn him away from further abasement. "You have no reason to cast me in such an angelic role."

"Yqu conduct yourself like a good officer, Madelaine." This was the highest praise he could give her.

"If that is true and useful, then it pleases me you think so." She tried to smile and nearly succeeded. "Well, I will consider myself fortunate that I have some poise, and will tell you I am grateful to you for holding it in high regard. Let me get you a cup of coffee, or something to eat."

"No," he insisted. "I am not finished, and I am not hungry." He put his hands together so that he would not be tempted to reach out for her. "It is inexcusable of me not to offer you any succor I can provide. My only excuse is that I am filled with anxiety about my children, and so have kept close to them for these past several days, for with their mother away, they are— You cannot blame me more than I blame myself."

"Doubtless," she said dryly.

"I am sorry I deserted you." He faltered, struggling to finish. "I am… tremendously proud of you."

It would have been easy to give him a facile answer, Madelaine realized; it would also shut him away from her as no barred door could do. She considered her response carefully. "I know how hard it is to say these things to me."

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