It is February and I am cleaning my office after the completion of another book. I’m well aware of the line of shadowy characters waiting in the hall, but I’ve told them that I have to clean up and organize my thoughts before starting another story. I’ve emptied the bookshelves this time and am doing an early spring clean when a swish of silk alerts me to her arrival.
She sweeps into the office, resplendent in peridot silk and pearls, and looks around with barely concealed disdain. “I expected better,” she says, after verifying that I am the author she seeks. “I like the house but you have no butler.” This is clearly a horrifying detail to her.
“I prefer quiet,” I say, emphasizing the last word. “Miss Esmeralda Ballantyne.”
She is a vision of loveliness, with her raven-black hair and glittering green eyes. It is her confidence that I find most interesting, though really, the female characters are easy to refuse. I choose to let her remain and ignore her as well as I can. She doesn’t make it easy. She circles the room, picking up items and putting them down again, peering at my posted schedule, walking around piles of books. She pokes, like a bored child, and I’m glad my computer is off. The slim silver laptop completely evades her interest.
“The very same,” she says as she wanders. “I’m gratified that you remember me.”
“I could hardly forget you. You were a secondary character in a book I finished just months ago.”
“Secondary,” she repeats grimly and pokes at a stack of books, sending them tumbling to the floor. I hurry to pick them up, checking that the corners aren’t bashed. I’m protective of my research books, which evidently amuses her. She laughs lightly, then fans through a pad of Post-it notes with her gloved fingers.
“Why are you called Miss Ballantyne, anyway?” I ask.
“Because I have never married, of course.”
“Don’t courtesans call themselves Mrs. whether they’ve been married before or not? Like housekeepers?”
She wrinkles her nose at the implication that she might have anything in common with a housekeeper. “I have little interest in convention. I thought authors were supposed to be perceptive. Shouldn’t you know that?”
I don’t answer that and begin shelving books again instead.
She doesn’t give it up. “And I thought a lack of regard for convention was something we had in common.”
“Maybe.” It’s possible that ignoring her will persuade her to leave. She seems to be craving attention.
“No chair for a guest,” she notes finally.
“By design. I prefer solitude when working.”
“You need a housemaid. Mine would have this tidy in no time.”
My patience is thinning. Clearly she wants something and just as clearly, she’s not going to leave me alone until she makes her request and argued in its favor. I’ve already decided that whatever she wants, it’s out of the question. “Is there some reason why you’re here?”
“Of course.” She grants me a beguiling smile. “I want you to tell a story.”
“I tell stories all the time.”
“This story. My story.”
I indicate the line of characters outside the office door. The knights from Rogues & Angels are playing draughts. Raphael is watching Miss Ballantyne with avid interest while Ceara pretends not to have noticed. Wynter is checking her phone, studiously ignoring her fated mate, Arach, who hovers on the cusp of shifting to his dragon form. “You have to wait your turn.” I go to the door with an armload of books to indicate the line, gathered before I first encountered Miss Ballantyne, and hear the silk rustle. Sure enough, when I turn around she has claimed my desk chair.
“He has a secret,” she whispers, spinning in the chair. She nods toward Arach.
“He’s a dragon shifter,” I reply. “I know about that.”
“Oh, that’s not the only one,” she says, eyes sparkling. “His real secret is much more interesting.” She lifts her brows.
I turn to look but Arach is trying to get Wynter’s attention. Then I realize what’s wrong. “Where are Thom and Annika?”
“Oh! One of the ferrets escaped. Inconvenient, really.” She widens her eyes as if innocent of any involvement but I know better. “I would welcome a cup of tea.”
I return to the middle of my office, ignoring this comment, and put down the books. “Where are Aidan and Merry?”
“Something wrong at the warehouse, I understand.” She picks up a book on medieval castle construction, winces and tosses it aside. I snatch it up and replace it in the proper pile. Her elegantly booted foot is swinging and she continues to spin in the chair, my chair.
“How did you get past the vampire?”
“Sebastian? What an alluring name.” She shivers with delight and smiles.
I know she has a tendre for Sebastian Montgomery but it seems rude to remind her. On the other hand, she is intruding.
“He’s boring everyone to tears with the tale of his days and nights in Constantinople. My memories are much more interesting.”
“You’ve been to Constantinople?”
“Lived there with my father. Venice, as well.”
I blink at this unexpected—and interesting—confession.
She yawns, perhaps aware that she’s caught my interest. “It was easy to slip past that part of the line. He would say his audience was dazzled, but I believe they were asleep. I do know something about performances.” She laughs lightly. “One of the dragon shifters said that’s the trouble with immortals—they think everyone has all the time in the world.”
I look toward the door again, tempted. “Sebastian is finally telling his story?”
“Dark and dreary past, lots of blood and violence. A quest and a vendetta from the part I heard, and, of course”—she yawns—”a love to defy the ages. What can you expect from a vampire? I myself prefer some banter, a little sizzle of attraction, even a marriage of inconvenience.”
“I’m not tempted by your story. I have a schedule.”
Her hand vanishes into her purse and she removes a small framed portrait. I like miniatures and am drawn closer against my will. It’s a painting of a well-dressed Regency couple, standing formally together. The woman is fair, her spectacles making it difficult to discern how pretty she is. She holds a book, as if she would hide behind it, and seems to be reserved. The gentleman is very handsome, perhaps more so in the flesh, and there is something—maybe his half-smile, maybe the slight angle to his hat—that makes me think him confident and even raffish. They seem to be an unlikely couple.
“They look respectable,” I say, knowing that my guest expects more speculation than that. I’m already wondering why they’re a couple. Neither look like the partner the other would choose. Is this the marriage of inconvenience?
“Oh, they are. That’s just the trouble. A respectable couple need an heir, but little progress is being made in that arena.” Esmeralda drops her voice conspiratorially. “I’m going to…intervene. it will be both gratifying and amusing.”
I stare at her. “I can’t see how seducing him is going to ensure they conceive an heir.”
She laughs at me. “Oh, you misunderstand. I’m going to tutor her.”
“Isn’t that improper?” My gaze trails to the miniature again. It seems unlikely that anyone, even Esmeralda, could turn this woman into a temptress. It would be fun to see his reaction, though.
Esmeralda coughs delicately. “That’s precisely why the suggestion appeals. You must write the story. I insist.” She settles into my chair, her expression resolute. “I will not leave this…hovel until you agree.”
Before I can argue this plan, I become aware then of a brooding presence behind me and turn to find another character has jumped the queue. He’s a tall and imposing gentleman in period dress and he’s glaring at Esmeralda, exuding disapproval. His hair is as dark as midnight and a bit too long; his eyes are dark and burn like banked fires. He leans upon his elegant cane as if he needs it and he exudes a power that can’t be denied. He’s dark and dangerous and…fascinating. Esmeralda is doing her best to ignore him, riffling through the pens and office supplies on my desk, and obviously failing.
That is interesting. I look between them, well aware that my presence isn’t necessary.
“Who’s that?” I ask her and to my surprise, Esmeralda flushes a little.
“What difference? He has no right to dictate my choices.” Her voice has risen a little, and I know he does have some ability to challenge her, whoever he is. “Will you do it or not?”
I look back at the man filling the doorway and know my decision is made. He flicks the barest of glances at me, then locks his attention upon Esmeralda again. The air crackles between them and I’m officially intrigued. I won’t take on this project for Esmeralda, but he is definitely worth my knowing better.
More on this new project tomorrow…