Winn stared down the length of the table at the Contessa. Her hair was upswept in a complicated creation of curls and twists, leaving her elegant neck and her collar bone and the tops of her creamy shoulders tantalizingly bare just above a swath of red silk. A whiff of onions tweaked his nose and he looked down to see a steaming bowl of soup had materialized unannounced in front of him.
Winn found himself at a loss as to which of the spoons he should use. He’d never found a need for more than one and certainly not three. And there were just as many forks. Which should he use? A prickle of sweat began to itch his neck beneath the stiff starched rim of his boiled collar.
“Do you approve of our first course, Mr. Jackson?”
Winn glanced up and saw her lightly tap the spoon to the farthest right of his place setting. He picked it up and waited for her to take the first bite, then followed suit. Hunting had taught him a lot, but never anything about the ways of high society. Who needed to know which spoon was used for soup when it was a properly packed shotgun shell that was going to save your ass?
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and took a bite of the onion soup. “It’s tasty.”
He could tell she tried to suppress her smile. She took another bite, then lightly patted her lips with her napkin. “You seem surprised.”
“Wasn’t anything I expected, that’s for sure.”
Her laugh was husky and genuine, wrapping around him and making him even more aware of how very feminine she was. Winn was out of his element. How did one make fancy dinner conversation? It wasn’t as if he could talk about work at the jail, or hunting. Ma had taught him enough to know those weren’t appropriate at the dinner table. The sudden memory of her pierced him, turning his stomach with regret. He put down his spoon and pushed the bowl away from him.
“Is something wrong with your soup?”
“Little rich for my blood,” he murmured.
One of the crystal goblets to his right began to fill with red liquid out of thin air. “That’s a mighty fancy trick.”
“Materializing objects is not a trick, Mr. Jackson, it is a power we work to achieve.”
He took the glass and sniffed the contents, making sure it was wine. The pleasantly tart flavor of grape swirled in his mouth, but he nearly choked when he saw what the Contessa had in her own glass. She held her own goblet to her lush mouth, but the red liquid was too bright, too viscous, to be wine.
“That a special vintage?” he asked, suspicion lacing his tone. She pulled the glass away from her lips and nodded.
“Anything I’d want to try?”
The Contessa arched a brow and shrugged. “I’m not in the habit of telling men such as yourself what you can and cannot do.”
Winn was momentarily distracted by the disappearance of his soup bowl and its replacement by a dinner plate filled with braised beef, tender asparagus and roasted red potatoes. It smelled better than anything he’d eaten in months. The back of his mouth ached and watered. His stomach growled. He didn’t bother trying to figure out which fork he was supposed to use to be proper, he just grabbed one and tucked in.
“It’s good to see a man with an appetite,” she said softly.
Winn glanced up at her as he chewed a bit of beef so tender he could cut it with his fork. He swallowed. “You say that like it hasn’t happened in awhile.”
She sipped at her wineglass thoughtfully. “Perhaps because it has been a long time. I’ve been a widow now nearlytwo hundred years.”
Winn choked, and launched into a coughing fit. “Two--two hundred years?”
She wove her hands together and rested her chin on them. Her gaze danced with amusement. “Does that surprise you?”
“A little,” he muttered. “You don’t look a day older than one-fifty- one-sixty at most.” He knew she’d had to be an old vampire to have the powers she did, but there was no way a man looking at her could have guessed her age. The smooth unblemished complexion, glossy hair, thick fringe of lashes about her eyes, and lush figure hinted at someone likely in their twenties, if that. “Not that I mean any disrespect,” he added quickly, then started eating again. Perhaps if he was eating she wouldn’t expect any more conversation from him.
She gifted him with a generous smile that fisted straight through his chest and squeezed his heart hard and for a second Winn forgot how to swallow.
“No offense taken. In fact, it pleases me enormously.”
“That I can’t guess your age or that you surprised me?”
“Both. You aren’t like any other Hunters of my acquaintance.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“Absolutely.” A flicker of anger flared deep in her eyes then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
“You don’t like Hunters much.”
“Before meeting you, no. You see, Mr. Jackson, Hunters killed the Count, my mother and father, my brothers and sisters. My cousin, the emperor, is really all I have left of my original family.”
“Hard to forget those who’ve done you wrong, isn’t it?”
“Which is why I find you so refreshing, Mr. Jackson. The Hunters in Europe will smile at you while they stab you in the back. They are well versed in the arts of politics and intrigue. While they profess to live as equals among us, they can never be truly trusted.”
The fork slipped from Winn’s grasp and clattered on the plate. “Sorry,” he muttered, feeling every inch a sod-buster sitting with royalty, than an accomplished law man.
“You are everything you appear to be, Mr. Jackson, and you say precisely what you think. That is what I like best about you. I will always know where I stand with you, whether enemy or ally.”
Her words were simple enough but wormed their way down into the deepest parts of him, pricking his conscious and bruising his honor. She was wrong. There were dark parts of him that never came to the surface, were never allowed to. He’d done things he was horribly ashamed of. How could she accept him so completely when he didn’t even accept himself? “I can honestly say, Lady Drossenburg, you’re not like any vampire I’ve ever met before either.”
She leaned forward slightly, the light from above causing a slight shadow along the velvety upper swell of her pale breasts. Her long tapered finger lightly brushed her full lips, making Winn think seriously about what it might be like to kiss her. With her finger she traced around the edge of her crystal goblet making it sing. The vibration of it went straight through him. “True, but then how many noble vampires from the House of Drossenburg have you had dinner with?”
A smile tugged at the corner of Winn’s mouth and he couldn’t stop it. “Only one.”
“And how many noble vampires from the House of Drossenburg have you danced with?”
Her question took him aback. He didn’t dance. Climb trees, scale the rock face of a cliff or crawl through a forest on his belly, he’d done, but not dance. The promising start of his smile flattened. “None.”
“Well, clearly we shall have to remedy that immediately.” She rose elegant and fluid from her chair, and Winn automatically stood out of courtesy.
As she walked by, the tantalizing scent of sweet female filled his nose and the satin of her dress made soft slithering sounds, bringing to mind the sound of sheets moving on a bed. Winn discarded the thought with annoyance. He’d been far too long without a woman. That was all.
The Contessa glanced over her bare shoulder at him, her amber eyes half hidden behind luxurious sable lashes. “You will dance with me, won’t you, Mr. Jackson?” The words were simple. Easy. Something any female could have said, but her husky tone, slipped like smoke through his defenses making him far too aware of just how truly female she was.
Winn’s pulse sped up and he tried to ignore the distinct pressure building in his groin. She might be a vampire, but Lady Drossenburg was much, much more than just a vampire. How could he tell her no without appearing impossibly rude? he told himself. Besides, he could certainly find her attractive without trusting her. The two didn’t have to go together like meat and potatoes
THE GIVE AWAY
Stay Tuned for my review of The Slayer Later this week.