"Yes. The next few years were difficult. I had to be on guard constantly, for the baron's son was always trying to ambush me and beat the hell out of me."
"What a creep."
Jean-Luc smiled. "He was. The king at that time, Louis XII, was trying to take over Italy. He demanded his nobles send him their best knights. The baron was linked to the powerful de Guise family who wanted the king to fail, so the baron was told to send his worst. And so I was quickly knighted. Another sad joke."
Heather winced. "You couldn't have been the worst."
"I had no real battle experience. And no family, so I was expendable. I was given a poor excuse for a horse, and some pathetic old weapons."
"Oh my gosh, they sent you to die."
"Exactly. I remember the baron laughing, saying that his decision to train me had paid off. I was sent instead of his son to die in a war that was doomed to fail." Jean-Luc closed his eyes briefly. "I swore that day that I would never be powerless again. I would never be a pawn again."
Heather touched his arm. "I'm so sorry."
He took her hand in his. "My first battle was in 1500. I survived."
"You were only fifteen."
He nodded. "I continued to do well. I was noticed and given a better horse and equipment. I was working my way up the ranks until 1513 and the Battle of the Spurs."
"That's when you..."
"Died. The English invaded France at Guinegate, and my comrades fled in battle. I was so angry that I stood my ground and slashed the first Englishman who approached me. A stupid mistake, for soon I was surrounded and stabbed many times. They left me to die."
Heather shuddered, and he tightened his grip on her hand.
"That night, Roman found me. I didn't want to die."
"Of course not. You were so young."
"Yes, but it was more than that. I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny. I was sick of being powerless. I wanted power, even power over death."
Heather swallowed hard. "I guess you got it."
He smiled wryly. "I can still die. And the final joke to my short life as a mortal - the following morning, my body was gone, so the Battle of the Spurs has gone down in the history books as a bloodless battle. I was the one forgotten casualty."
He squeezed her hand. "Only a few know my story. I hate to even remember how pathetic I was."
"I felt pathetic, too, that I let everyone boss me around. But you know, we're not pathetic at all. We're conquerors. We have both struggled to change our lives for the better." She winced inwardly. She'd just admitted his life as a vampire was an improvement.
"I won't lie to you, chérie. The vampire world is just as violent as the mortal one. The Malcontents are growing an army, and another war could break out. That would be a disaster for us all. Such a war could not escape notice. The media would be all over it."
She took a deep breath. "Your secret would be out."
He nodded. "Exactly."
And there would be people determined to hunt down all vampires and kill them. "That would be a disaster." She withdrew her hand and leaned back in her chair. The vampire world was a dangerous one. How could she drag her daughter into it?
He stood and wandered to the window overlooking the showroom. "I need to warn you about the runway show a week from Saturday. I thought about canceling it, since it gives Lui an opportunity to attack you. But we decided to go ahead with it."
She gulped. "So I'm going to be a sitting duck?"
He turned to face her. "I will be by your side the entire evening. We will be well prepared. It is better this way. Better to draw him here where we can control the situation. And better for it to happen at night when all the Vamps are awake and able to protect you."
She nodded slowly. "Better to get it over with, too." She didn't want to live with the threat of Louie any longer than necessary. "But we have to keep my daughter and Fidelia safe. I won't let you put them in danger."
"Agreed." He paced over to his worktable. "Now you know what I fear the most. I hate being powerless. Being a vampire has given me many powers, super strength and speed, and so on, but it also has one terrible weakness. I am totally powerless during the day."
She rose to her feet. "You have your guards to keep you safe."
He shook his head and picked up a swatch of green silk. "It is not my safety that worries me. Every morning at sunrise, when I slip into my death-sleep, I am gripped with a terrible fear that something will happen to you while I lie there powerless to help you." He crushed the fabric in his fist. "I could not bear it."
"It'll be all right." She rushed to the table. "I have Phil and Ian, and Fidelia with her guns. And I'm not totally helpless myself." She touched his arm. "We all have fears that plague us."
"And are you still afraid of me? Of what I am?" He dropped the fabric on the table. "How can I convince you that it changes nothing? I will still love you no matter what. I will always love you."
Tears stung her eyes, and she turned away. "It's not that I don't - I think you're a wonderful man."
He picked up a peacock feather and dragged the soft fronds up her bare arm. "I'm trying so hard not to touch you."
Her arm tingled. Her heart ached with a need to comfort him. He so needed to be loved. He deserved all the love that a good life should have, the love he'd never had.
With a small cry, she wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tight. "You're a good man, Jean-Luc. A beautiful man."
"Heather." He held her lightly as if trying to retain control. "I want you so." His hand skimmed up and down her back, inciting delicious little tingles.
She needed to back away, but he was so solid. So easy to lean on. She felt his chin rub against her hair. His lips brushed against her brow. The familiar tug of desire spread through her.
His arms tightened. "Let me court you." He nuzzled her neck, then whispered in her ear, "Let me love you."
She glanced at his face, and her breath stuck in her throat. The light blue irises in his eyes were changing. "Your eyes are turning red."
He smoothed her hair back from her brow. "It's a problem I keep having whenever I'm around you."
"Why? Do I make you hungry?"
"You make me ache with desire. My eyes are merely a reflection of the passion burning inside me."
"You mean they turn red when you're...turned on?"
"Yes." He smiled slowly. "You could help me alleviate the problem. But I'm afraid it would continue to arise, over and over again."
Oh God, would that be such a bad way to spend the rest of her life? A seed of panic rose in her stomach. She wasn't ready to commit to such a different life for her and her daughter. "I - I need to go." She stepped back.
He released her. "As you wish, chérie."
She left and slipped inside her dark bedroom. Good Lord, what should she do? She had no doubt that Phineas was correct, and being a vampire didn't change a person's character. Jean-Luc was just as noble and honorable as he'd been when alive. Maybe even more so. His additional years of existence had given him a wisdom and maturity that Heather found very appealing. And of course, he was very sexy. He was wonderful with Bethany, kind and generous to Fidelia. He was perfect in every way but one. He was a vampire.
But being a vampire hadn't changed Jean-Luc, and it wasn't changing how she felt about him. Now that she was over the initial shock, she realized she was still attracted to him, still in love with him. And that scared her more than his pointed teeth ever had. For she was seriously considering a relationship with him.
Part of her told her that was crazy. She'd known Jean-Luc a week now. How could she make a decision that would affect her entire life? And Bethany's, too. How could she explain to her daughter that Mommy's new boyfriend was dead during the day? How could she burden a young child with such secrets? But the alternative, keeping the truth from her daughter, would make Heather feel dishonest and guilty.
Overall, it was a difficult situation. She would age, and Jean-Luc wouldn't. She would be dragging her daughter into a bizarre world. On the other hand, she might be giving her daughter a wonderful and loving stepfather.
But he would be dead during the day. Heather's mind flipped back and forth between the pros and cons. It was enough to give her a major headache. She fumbled across the room in the dark to the bathroom, then she closed the door and turned on the light.