Theater of Vengeance
My thirty-first birthday passed without me noticing, caught up as I was in the constant bustle of performing the trilogy. Eight shows a week was a grueling schedule for any actor. But my second job, running the Royale Theatre Troupe’s business end, was just as exhausting. Alistair and I, working in tandem, handled all the creative decisions for the company. That wasn’t so bad. But I personally managed the books, the publicity, the correspondence—every little onerous pain in the ass detail no one else ever thought about I had to address right down to the minutiae.
Normally, I hated that kind of work. But these days, I was burying myself in it. I found ways to stay busy, and invented a few to make me busier still. My little office at the theater was the one space where I felt completely secure for some reason, and it was a welcome escape from the emotional assaults that battered at me as soon as I set foot in the door of our house.
Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t Dominic’s fault. I knew that he was actually being extremely patient with me. After the immortal whose domain was Desire had psychically and physically attacked me, my husband had been so understanding and supportive. He wasn’t the one assaulting me with these overwhelming barrages of emotions.
I was torturing myself.
As soon as I opened the door and the kittens came running, purring around my ankles while I hung up my coat, I immediately began a mental litany of guilt and shame that I could not, no matter how hard I tried, stop.
I was so arrogant. I thought I could stand up to anything or anyone…
I headed for the kitchen to get the cats the food and milk and treats they required as soon as I walked in the door.
I should have noticed instantly that thing wasn’t the real Harlequin…
I made myself a latte or a cappuccino or poured a glass of wine.
I couldn’t stop myself from responding to that thing’s touch…
I shrank in a little on myself, unable to refute the brutal truth. Once upon a time, I’d used the slang phrase can’t rape the willing flippantly. Now it was just another uncomfortable reminder. When Desire ran a hot hand up my thigh, when that thing bared my breasts so it could explore them with tongue, teeth, and lips, and when it kissed me my whole body had been seized up with a spasm of passion and hot, raw lust—and by God, I still craved it. The horror of that realization was compounded by the terrible fact that when I’d almost been seduced, when the fire was ignited that was still burning the tips of my fingers, that thing had done so wearing three faces. At the very end of the encounter, he’d used his own face—amber-gold eyes, striking features, and a body that should have been a mortal sin—and even then, I’d barely been able to withstand the psychic bombardment.
But Desire had come to me as the Harlequin, a one-time enemy turned half-ally, half-mentor for a reason. The Harlequin had wanted me for years. What began as a play in the game he was always blathering about had turned into something else, apparently. I wasn’t quite sure what his true motives were, but one thing I knew for a certainty. I no longer hated him the way I’d once done. I even had a tiny smidgeon of trust in him, because he’d never lied to me or broken his word either. That I could respect, and seeing as he seemed to be invested in keeping me out of other immortals’ hands that trust was both comforting and growing.
What I was having trouble dealing with was the fact that the third face that thing had worn was Dominic’s. Dominic and I had always had a healthy sex life. We loved each other, we were wildly in love with each other—yes, there’s a distinction there—and we always wanted each other. Not a day went by that I didn’t crave his touch, his kisses, his embraces. I knew every inch of his body and still wanted to explore him even more. Dominic was a passionate, driven, ferocious lover and all his sexual energy had been focused on me to the exclusion of the rest of the world.
That passion had been used to torture him too. He’d been compelled by our enemies to break our marriage vows during the two years he’d been trapped back in time, but he also had been with his long-dead first wife and fathered a child on her during that stretch. He considered both a betrayal of me, and had punished himself for a long time after we’d rescued him—until he’d finally obliterated the Duc d’Orléans from our lives once and for all.
But now, the roles were reversed. He was being understanding, and me? I was punishing myself because an immortal had stolen my husband’s face and blasted me with a seductive pulse of desire I’d been unable to fight. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that despite my resistance to that thing’s power, I’d still wanted it to touch me.
Now when I saw Dominic’s face, some part of me was trembling in fear that it really wasn’t him but some immortal in disguise. I was gradually training myself not to flinch away from Dominic’s touch, but it was slow work. Only onstage, when I let myself sink into the character I played, could I tolerate his gentle kisses, the strength of his arms, or the reverence of his caresses.
Tragically, Dominic knew how I felt. He understood what I was going through. He carefully blacked himself out to me so I wouldn’t sense how my terror grieved him.
Thank God for Alistair and Lucienne. I wouldn’t have been able to even appear halfway normal if they hadn’t made a point out of buffering me from the rest of the world for the past few weeks.
But…something else had changed that was starting to help. The Harlequin had always kept an eye on me—that much I knew. Now he was permitting me to know when he was nearby. He didn’t do anything overt. I’d walk into my dressing room before a show and he would let me see him, or hear him in my mind. He never importuned me. He just let me know that he was close and watching over me.
He was protecting me, when you got right down to it. As he was the Warden of Time and one of the most powerful immortals in existence, the knowledge that he was guarding me against further attacks was probably the only thing that let me stay calm those first few weeks. He had told me he’d teach me how to use his enchanted ceiling and to harness the power of his domain. Instinctively, I knew that once I had gained that knowledge I would be much, much more difficult for any other immortal to take.
So matters stood at the end of January, and they didn’t seem like they’d be changing any time soon.
Mondays were our dark days, our days off from the theater. When I woke up one Monday morning, I started to stretch and then froze.
Dominic wasn’t anywhere in sight. I was alone. The cats were curled up at the end of the bed, asleep. The entire house was silent, and our bedroom was still. When I looked out the French doors that led to our little balcony, snow was falling steadily and piling along the railings. I sat up slowly, almost afraid to breathe.
Dominic hadn’t let me wake up alone in weeks. He was always there—quiet, soothing, protective. I thought about calling for him psychically, but I was afraid to. Instead I pushed the covers to one side as quietly as I could. When my feet touched the floor, I stood up and then hesitated before I decided what to do.
Possibly, this was another trap.
Equally possibly, this was nothing more than Dominic being hungry enough to go downstairs and find some breakfast without waking me up.
I crept to the door, which was ajar. As silently as I could, I stepped into the hall.
I am downstairs. Dominic’s psychic murmur was accompanied by a wave of calming energy. Nothing is wrong, Catherine.
I descended to the first floor, and when I turned on the landing Dominic was sitting on the sectional. He turned from his contemplation of the fire with a small smile.
“You look like you’re about ten years old,” he remarked, rising from his seat with that old-fashioned courtesy I so liked. “Why don’t you join me? You need to eat. I’ll go make your coffee.”
“No, that’s all right. I can get it.” The last of my concern ebbed and I padded across the room to where he stood, waiting for me.
“Don’t be silly. Sit down and have some toast.”
“I’d actually really prefer a glass of milk.”
“That would be better for you. I’ll get it then we’ll sit together.”
He looked so pleased at the thought of getting something for me. I sat down, and a minute later he came out of the kitchen with my milk. I may have looked ten, but he looked…amazing. As usual, he’d disdained to wear a shirt, and even in nothing but a pair of pajama pants managed to look…well…hot. He smiled as he set down the glass, and I tentatively smiled back.
“What would you like to do today?” he asked, adding butter and jam to a piece of toast.
“I haven’t really thought about it. I should go to the office—”
“No, you need a day off. We should do something fun.” He handed me the toast and waited until I took it. “We can do anything we want.”
I took a bite and regarded him thoughtfully. “You have something in mind, don’t you?”
“At some point today, yes.” He looked like he was about to say something else, hesitated, and then brushed hair back from my face.
That was a habit of his, something he did when he couldn’t stop himself from touching me. Aside from onstage or when he was holding me before I fell asleep, that was the first time he’d touched me since…since…
“Don’t cry, Catherine,” he said quietly. “Wipe your eyes, love, or I will. I want to see you happy today instead of sad or afraid.”
“I’ve missed that,” I murmured, setting my toast back onto the plate. “I didn’t realize I had until just now.”
“You are healing.” His voice was soft and understanding as he put the toast firmly back in my hand. “You know I will give you all the time you need to do that, Catherine, but I must confess that it has been torture not to touch you.”
“I know.” I bit my lip miserably. “I’m sorry—”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he replied, firmly tugging my lip free. “Now—what do you want to do today? You need to get out of this house and the theater and have some fun in London. I have checked my bank accounts and I think I can take the hit.”
Smartass. He could take hits Rockefellers would be afraid of.
“I thought perhaps this morning we could go—”
“Could we maybe go somewhere different?” I asked suddenly.
“I don’t know—anywhere. Someplace else. A hotel maybe, or a B and B in some small town? Someplace where no one will think to look for us.”
“I have plans for tonight that might fit the bill,” he said warily. “There’s someplace I’d like to take you that I thought might help…”
“Help what?” I asked after he’d floundered for a minute.
“Help you no longer fear me.” His response was immediate. “God knows, Catherine, that I have done my best to let you find your own path back to me. You’re completely incapable of shielding your thoughts right now, so I know what you’ve been struggling with. I know you long for us to be as we have always been. I also know you’re terrified that if you permit that state to rise once more you’ll find out that all of this has been an elaborate charade. I am not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do. What I am going to do is tell you simply that when you want to touch me, or kiss me, or whatever, I want you to do that and to know with absolute certainty that whatever happens is completely in your control. I will deny you nothing, and I will insist upon nothing as well. I am giving you the freedom to follow your impulses in complete safety.”
“It’s not you,” I mumbled. “It’s me.”
“And understandably so.” He lifted my chin and peered down into my face. “Anything you want from me, you have only to ask.”
I didn’t bother to ask. Instead I tossed the toast more or less on the plate and leaned against his chest, wrapping my arms around him. As he settled his arms around me, a tremor ran through his body. But he didn’t comment, and didn’t do anything more than just hold me. His heart was beating faster than usual under my cheek.
“I just want to feel safe again,” I said at last.
“And you shall. But first, you need to eat your breakfast and drink your milk like a good girl.” There was a smile in his voice as he added, “Then you’re going to go upstairs and take a nice long bath. Once you’re relaxed and ready, then we’ll go start our day. Do you really want to go somewhere other than London? Or would you rather stay in the city today? We can go shopping for furniture if you like. Or clothes? Anything you like. We could have an expensive dinner with several bottles of wine. If you can trust me enough to say yes, I have an idea of where to take you where you might regain a sense of security…someplace that will just be for you and me…alone.”
I looked up at him. “Is that someplace, or somewhen?”
“Will I need costuming?” I asked with a smile.
“I have taken care of everything,” he replied. “But if you smile at me again, I may just decree that I am taking you shopping first.”
“I don’t think I’m up to dealing with a bunch of crowds and noise just yet.”
“That’s a natural reaction when an empath has been compelled to do something against their nature, Catherine. That’s exactly how I felt for a century or so after I was bound to d’Orléans. The experience makes you more vulnerable to the thoughts of people around you—random strangers and their random problems break through your shields. It’s like being in a psychic hailstorm with no shelter in sight. But there are ways to combat that. If you don’t want to go shopping, although I would dearly love to lavish everything I can upon you, then perhaps we should just go to the surprise I have for you instead.”
“But first—long hot bath. Put on some music. Read a book. Relax your body and your mind. When you’re ready, we’ll go.”