Jesslynn tucked the blankets into a hurried nest, lest Tristan roll away, and dressed quickly. There were more footsteps, scurrying, hurrying, running to the scene in the front of the house. She could see light flare; a torch. One of the slaves shouted, and then the gun went off.
Tristan wailed and Alexander was suddenly there, his eyes wide in his terrified face. "What is it?"
She pulled him into a hug and squeezed him tight. Her son. Her only son that would survive. Reluctantly, she released him. "I don't know yet. Stay here with your brother and stay quiet."
He nodded, and she took a last look at them before she hurried out the door.
The house was dark, and she had no candle. She stubbed her toe on a heavy sideboard and banged her knee into a low stool. There was no time to stop. She could hear someone shouting outside. She could hear Torina screaming again.
Two of the kitchen girls stood on the porch in their nightdresses, their eyes wide and their terrified fingers pointing away into the shadows near the carriage house. One of them held a torch. The flickering flame threw harsh, stark shadows. Henry, one of the slaves, stood on the bottom step, the rifle to his shoulder. The barrel shook in time with his hands. At his feet, red against the snow, was a splash of blood. It trailed away into the darkness, mingled with drag marks, disappearing towards the carriage house.
Jesslynn made the sign of the cross. The devil had come for Torina at last. For one wild moment she thought again to leave her, but where was Nan? The slave woman had been good to her and to her children. She didn't deserve to suffer for Torina's sins.
"What are you waiting for?" Jesslynn demanded. She grabbed the torch from the trembling slave and marched forward. The women wailed, and Henry hurried after her, the gun up.
The night was cold. The stars were tiny and brittle, like bits of broken glass. The snow was frosted over and crunched under her feet. The heavy silence was broken by soft, guttural noises and something that sounded wet and sloppy. The doors of the carriage house were open and the closer Jesslynn drew, the louder it grew.
And then she saw it.
A man lay near the doors, his body broken and crumpled. It was Torina's lover. Blood stained the snow around him. Just inside the carriage house crouched Torina. Her hair had fallen around her face like a shower of flames. Her dress was torn and bloody. A gaping wound on her neck bled freely. More horrifying, she held an unconscious Nan in her arms. Her mouth was fastened around the old woman's neck. The torchlight shone in her green eyes and Jesslynn bit back a scream at what she saw there; lust, hunger and madness.
"Do not enter!"
It was Oren.
She pulled to a stop, the torch held high. Slowly, Oren stepped from inside the shadowy building. He was dressed as she'd last seen him, only without his coat or hat. His long blond hair flapped free in the wind. Blood ran down his chin and stained his shirt and hands.
"God save us!" Jesslynn made the sign of the cross and moved back. Oren stared at her, the expression on his face a mixture of sorrow and fear. He took a step towards her and she backed away. The torch shook in her hands and slipped from her fingers. The flame burned for a minute, throwing long, black shadows, and then it sputtered and died.
She heard the gun go off behind her, but she didn't stop. The two girls were still on the porch. She'd nearly reached them when he called to her, "Jesslynn."
The girl's shocked expressions made her stop. She looked over her shoulder and then looked away quickly. His face was clean and his shirt was gone. He stood half naked in the snow, his tawny hair whipping around his face.
"Go inside," she ordered the girls. "Alexander and Tristan are in the master bedroom. Go to them and stay until I come for you."
They babbled incoherently and fled into the safety of the house. She could hear Oren's footsteps crunching through the snow, moving towards her. She couldn't bring herself to face him.
At last he stood behind her. She could feel him there, so close that his hot breath warmed the back of her neck. The proximity tightened her spine and her shoulders like a fist. She couldn't move.
"Jesslynn." Her name was more a breath than a word. Softly, he touched her cheek. His warm fingers trailed down her neck to her shoulder and she shivered. "You wanted the gift, Jesslynn, and I've brought it." His voice turned brittle. "Look at me, wife. This is what you wanted. Look at it."
Almost against her will she turned and stared into his face. It was different. He was different. His golden eyes seemed to glitter with an intensity they'd never held before and when he opened his mouth she saw the fangs.
"God preserve us!" She fell back. "What have you done? What have you become? What have you done?"
He closed the gap between them and cradled her face in his hand, forcing her to look at him. "I did as you asked. You wanted his secret and here it is. Do you still want it?"
A twig snapped. She looked over his shoulder to see Torina hovering in the shadows. She wiped the blood from her face with a gory hand and swayed on her feet. A maniacal smile spread over her face and long, shiny fangs glittered in her mouth.
Whether gift or curse, he had given it to his sister first.
In that moment she hated Torina more than she had ever hated anyone.
"You shared it with her?"
There was regret in his voice. "I had no choice. I I couldn't stop. The man his blood. I hurried to come home to you. I did not drink first. She did not know me. She screamed. I I did not mean to bite her. But then I couldn't let her die. She is my sister. There was no choice."
No choice. No choice but to save his sister. She buried her fears behind her fury. "Will it save our son?"
Oren hesitated. "Yes. But Jorick said we must not use it on the children, not until they're grown. Once they drink they will never age, never grow."
He nodded uncertainly and she focused again on Torina. The redhead stumbled backwards and fell to the ground on her knees. Her eyes squeezed shut and she held herself as if trying to stop her insides from spilling out into the snow. A high, horrible sound issued from her lips.
"It is the change," he said softly. "There is pain. It comes and goes, then disappears in a day."
Torina threw her head back and howled. She fell onto her back and writhed, her arms around her mid section. Her bloody hands left red, wet spots on her new dress. Blood. Pain. The mark of the devil.
And then Jesslynn pictured Tristan.
"Yes," she whispered, her voice almost inaudible. "Yes. Give it to me."
Oren crushed her to him. She could feel his heart pounding against her, the warmth of his hard body, the texture of his hands as he pulled her head to one side, exposing her throat. He brought his lips to her neck. His breath was hot. He hovered, lips brushing her skin, and then, he bit.
Jesslynn held back a scream. She would not howl like Torina. She would not draw attention.
I am strong. I am fierce. I am resolute.
I will save my children.
Like me, they will be strong.