Immortal. That’s what Liam had said. His face returned to her, in snatches of nightmare, the wonder and bloodlust swimming in the blue striations of his eyes as the night pressed in around them. “He can’t be killed,” he told them, his captive audience on tenterhooks. Annabel remembered the snowflakes in his hair; the wind sighing high in the snow-weighted branches above them. She remembered her sister with fistfuls of fire, her waifish elegance splashed with the jewel tones of flame. “Blackmere,” Liam said, half-curse and half-prayer. His bane and his driving passion. “The Baron Strange of Blackmere…”
Annabel had learned, though, that there were ways to kill a man without laying a finger on him. The thing to do was kill his soul. Or, at least, stand by and watch it wither on the vine. Watch it shrivel and blacken and turn to ash. Watch him come to hate the gift of forever. She’d never felt so helpless.
The sun was setting. Atlanta wasn’t the glittering splendor of New York, but it was spired and deep-veined and diamond-studded in the way of all cities. The sun’s mating with the tree line poured molten waves down the building fronts, struck sparks off the slippery lengths of glass, cast shadows on the marching torchlights of the interstate. From the forest, the city rose glorious and neon, a poisonous palace.
Annabel pulled the halves of her sweater together and suppressed a shiver. She put her back to the blazing city at the window and faced their apartment.
Her husband was on the bed, shirtless and barefoot, studying the squares of reflected light that played across the ceiling. His skin gleamed ivory in the evening gloom; his head rested at the edge of the bed and gravity pulled the black curtain of his hair toward the floor; the ends just flirted with the carpet.
She crossed the room to him silently, and perched on the edge of the bed. When he didn’t take notice of her, she traced the shiny white scar that ran along the underside of his ribcage with a fingertip. “Hello, Frank.”
Movement: the flicker of his lashes. The ungodly blue of his eyes as they came to her face. “Call me Frank one more time,” he said, “and I’ll throttle you.”
She bit back a smile. “Not likely. You can’t even bother to dress yourself. And throttling takes so much effort…Frank.”
One arm, ropy with muscle and tendon, highways of blue veins converging at the wrist, lifted. Annabel sat, in passive, amused silence as he pushed the mahogany sheet of her hair back and circled her throat with his hand. It was a long-fingered, elegant, aristocrat’s hand. A hand that belonged to the crisp, authoritative resonance of his voice. A hand for thumbing through books and striking keys on the piano and closing with elegant softness around the hilts of sabers. His fingers curved around her nape, and his thumb pressed, with care, against her windpipe.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “Mock me and see if I don’t.”
She smiled…and then sobered. “You have to be Frank, now. That’s what we agreed on. You’re Frank and I’m–”
His hand left her throat and he set a finger to her lips. “You’re Annabel,” he said quietly, his voice threaded with desperation. “Write whatever you want on your Starbucks paper cups, but here, you’re still Annabel.”
The beautiful, austere lines of his face were tense with something like dread. He dreaded the moment they lost their identities for good.
He turned his face away when she leaned over him, so she pressed her lips against the pulse point on his throat. He’d always tasted like winter; like cold things and the color blue. “Oh, Fulk,” she whispered against his skin. “I will always be your Annabel.”
They had an apartment in a part of the city that pretended to be seedier than it was, equidistant to a coffee shop and liquor store, with a passable view of Centennial Olympic Park. Some nights, they would drink Johnnie Walker Red from the bottle, passing it between them, watching the city put on her nightly light show, remembering the boardwalks and dirt streets and thump of cannon fire. Those were long, nebulous nights, when their hands, tattooed with the curves and planes, the blueprints, of each other’s bodies, tangled together over their café table and they tunneled back through time in a collection of searching glances and tightening fingers.
The fluidity of memory was dangerous. It held sway over them, like the moon pulling at the tides. And somewhere in the last third of the bottle, Annabel let go of the present, and relinquished herself to the past.
It was night, resplendent with moonglow, hushed with snowfall, the tree trunks limned in silver. The horses champed and shifted, tails swishing, restless. Her wrists were bound with rope and secured to the pommel of her saddle; between her knees, she felt her horse shiver. They were somewhere in Virginia, and she was in the hands of the enemy. Ahead, she saw her captor turn, breath pluming into the crystalline night; saw his regal profile and the glimmer of light eyes and white teeth as he smiled a terrible smile. The baron. The nightmare Liam has chased all the way from Atlanta. The horror that overshadowed the war. “Bring her,” he said, and she was herded deeper into the trees.
It was midday, and he summoned her to his table. She’d never seen a true gentleman before and she hated his face almost as much as she couldn’t stop looking at it. He freed her wrists and cuts her choice bits of venison from his own steak. He watched her eat, and amusement brightened his horrible blue eyes when his gaze lit on the blood caked into the creases of her palms. She’d killed one of her guards with the knife in her boot. She’d surprised him when he knelt to check her bonds, and his blood had run hot and slick across her hands. She expected Fulk le Strange to slap her across the face. Instead he was pleased. “You’re a spirited thing, aren’t you?” he asked, and shared his meal with her.
It was a month later, and she had almost forgotten the sound of her sisters’ laughter. She wondered if she was no longer bound because he trusted her…or because she had forgotten herself. She didn’t think so. She thought she was still Annabel Harwood, and that her convictions had not fled, but shifted. She saw the mantle of responsibility he wore. He was all long arms and legs and lean, leashed power; he watched the horizon and cursed the cross that he bore. The war faded; her life before became an indistinct collage of colors and sounds. His hair slid like watered silk as she sifted the black strands through her fingers. “You don’t have to do this,” she whispered. “You could go home.”
He turned to her. “And if I went” – never had she seen such blue – “would you come with me?”
It was evening, and his lips crushed hers like the soft pink petals of a rose, with a violent sort of tenderness. It was the first time anyone had seen her as a woman. The stroke of his body against hers was magnificent, and as the pain melted to infinite pleasure, she knew she could never return to her old life.
It was the day he betrayed his cause, and he buried his face in her throat and asked her to tell him what he already knew: that he has learned what it means to do a good thing.
It was the day of her rescue, and she begged her sisters to leave her be. She didn’t need rescuing.
It was after that devastating moment in the forest. The sound of Liam dying haunted her ears. Fulk’s face floated over her, sinister and grave in the leaping candlelight, as he saved her life; as she crossed the forever-line of mortality.
It was after the war, and the North and South retained little of their old selves. Her sisters would not forgive her. “I don’t want to stay,” she whispered in the velvet dark of night. “Take me away somewhere.”
It was New York, and London, and Paris, and St. Petersburg. It was India, and Australia, and the Philippines. And it was Atlanta again. Always and forever, it would be the place she was born…not once, but twice.
One memory persisted, at the end of every bottle, amber-colored and honey-flavored. It wasn’t the only moment of clarity in all their time together, but it had been the first, and for that, she cherished it.
Spring was roaring in, shaking off the tender, shy shoots of post-winter, bursting with colors and the ceaseless trilling of birdsong. The cherries and pears flooded the fragrant air with pastel snowfall; the earth was damp and green-smelling, the packed clay roads slick from spontaneous rain showers. Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, chose to ignore the War Between the States. It was spring, and she was rolling out her carpet as always, heedless of the copper tang of blood in the water.
Annabel stopped beneath the modest canopy of a redbud and cupped a stem of purple blossoms. A smile touched her lips. Her sister Lily, named for delicate flora, would love a little bundle of flowers to tuck behind her ear. The deep lavender would complement the fine-spun gold of her hair. She would break the stem with her nails, she decided, and bring it to Lily as a gift –
Her hand retracted suddenly. She couldn’t bring the flowers to Lily. She wasn’t even sure Lily would be willing to see her.
Fulk missed nothing. “What?” he asked behind her.
She turned to face him, her skirts rustling against the meadow grass. He walked a pace behind her, hands clasped loosely behind his back, elegant and lean in his black coat, breeches, and high-polished boots. He had a ruthless, narrow, hard edged face, but it was familiar to her now. The afternoon sunlight brought a luster to his white skin. His black hair touched the shoulders of his coat. He seemed a pagan prince, born out of the mists of Camelot, this ancient foreign stranger who had gained pride of place in her stupid childish heart.
“My sisters,” she said, remorse heavy on her tongue. Fulk halted and studied her in his disquieting way. “They won’t want to be my sisters anymore.”
He tipped his head, and considered. “You haven’t betrayed them.”
“They won’t see it that way.”
He stepped around her. He was head and shoulders taller than she was; he smelled, faintly, of frozen things. And of an elusive warmth she gave herself credit for cultivating. “You can not return to them,” he said over his shoulder, the words ringing with challenge. “Liam will never believe I haven’t addled your mind.”
“And what does he know about my mind?” she bristled.
Fulk’s grin was tiny, and pleased. “Nothing, I suspect.”
“Liam,” she continued, gaining momentum, “just loves to hear himself talk. All his speeches, all his friend of the Confederacy talk, and what does he really care about? Nothing but getting under my sister’s skirts!”
“To be fair, darling, the Confederacy was doomed from the beginning.”
“I know.” She glanced down at the toes of her boots. God, she’d been young and foolish at the start of the war, when she’d waved her brother off to fight, when she’d believed that there was something besides pride and cruelty fueling this battle of state against state. “I know that,” she repeated. “But” – she looked on her lover beseechingly – “his words were so pretty. He made us think…”
She glanced down again, and felt the cool touch of his fingers beneath her chin before he lifted her head. “That the South’s paupers didn’t deserve to die in the fray?” he asked quietly, his blue gaze translucent and fixed.
Anger flickered beneath her skin. “That wasn’t a lie. Even if Liam couldn’t deliver…that part was true.” She dared him, with silent taunting, to argue against her. To tell her that poor farmer’s daughters should suffer for the greed of a wealthy few.
After a long moment, Fulk said, “You are here, now, and for that I am grateful.”
She grinned. “I’m here now because I was gagged and bound and carried off in the middle of the night,” she reminded lightly.
He suppressed his own smile, but she saw evidence of it flickering at the corners of his mouth. “I don’t recall that.”
Annabel watched him stalk away from her, along the forest’s edge. Watched the breeze catch at his hair; watched the shift of muscle in the long lines of his legs. “Fulk.” She’d never called him by his proper title; he secretly delighted in the way she treated him like he wasn’t important, she knew. “What will you do when the duke arrives?”
His steps arrested; he was so still for a moment, she wasn’t sure he was breathing. His profile was rigid, cut-glass perfection. “I’m going to do as I’ve been told,” he said.
And in that moment, clarity descended, crushing in its authority. She’d spent months under the misassumption that she would be forced to choose. Her life had gone in a direction unimagined, and when her new existence collided with the old, she would have to decide where her loyalty would take her. That choice, however, had already been made. Weeks before. When Fulk had brought her into his confidence, she’d ceased to be a captive. Had she asked, had she begged and pleaded, during any of those moon-splashed nights when their bodies were intertwined, he would have released her. But she’d stayed. And together, they’d crossed the line between hate and love, so that now, she knew down to her bones, Fulk would never let her go. Worse, she didn’t want him to.
“The duke is powerless without you,” she reminded him. “You’re not at his mercy.”
He turned to face her, his smile mocking. “And what is this? A plea from the little American girl?”
She folded her arms and her left foot slid from beneath her skirt out of old habit, toe of her boot tapping at the grass. “Reasoning from the little American girl,” she countered, and felt the pull of her usual scowl. “You,” she continued, anger crystallizing her words, “could be remarkable, if you wanted to. But you choose not to be. Liam” – his eyes sparked at the sound of the man’s name – “wants nothing except to be remarkable, and he won’t ever be, and you don’t even try–”
“No, it isn’t! No one talks to you this way, so I’m damn well going to!”
He took a step toward her, the threat of his posture not subtle. “Be quiet, Anna.”
“Or what?” she challenged. “You’ll snap my neck? Hit me? Just send me back to Liam and his rebels and my sisters if you can’t bear to hear the truth, you ass!”
He caught her arm as she tried to spin away, snatching her against him like she was a doll. His face, the intensity in its lines, held no terror for her, not anymore.
“Send me back,” she whispered, not flinching away from his gaze.
A muscle in his throat leaped. “You know I can’t.”
“Then do what the rest of the world can’t. Be remarkable, Fulk, and don’t ever apologize for it.”
And he was. He was so remarkable it brought tears to her eyes. In his violence, in his compassion, in his grief, in his vengeance, in his exaltation of her modest offerings. He put a knife through the duke’s throat. He spared her sisters. He left off from the war-ravaged South, and spirited her away. Liam was the only casualty of the private war between ancient and modern, and it was Liam’s choice, she told Fulk as they leaned against the rail of a ship some months later, because unlike the monster he’d been chasing, Liam had never understood that hate, like fire, would always flicker to ash at the end. Then it was only embers and snow.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.”
Annabel pursed her lips and scanned her reflection in the Walgreens security mirror, capping the lipstick she’d just applied straight off the shelf. “I like it. Do you like it?” She turned and batted her eyelashes at him before the seductive façade dissolved into giggles.
“I think I don’t want to spend the night in the back of a squad car over lipstick.”
She rolled her eyes and the fluorescent bulbs struck the golden filaments at the edges of her irises. “I’m going to pay for it. Or, well, you are. I left my wallet at home.”
Fulk sighed and held out his hand; her navy-nailed fingertips were delicate as fresh cream in his palm as she passed him the lipstick. “Is this it?”
“No, I’m still shopping.” She turned away from him and walked in her light, sprite-like way down the cosmetics aisle, reaching to run her fingers across shiny plastic cases and candy-colored nail polish bottles. She’d cajoled him into the shower, back at the apartment, and then into clothes, and finally out onto the sidewalk, the smells of night and steakhouse filling their lungs. She took a child’s joy in drugstore shopping…in everything, really. A century, it seemed, couldn’t dull the seventeen-year-old she’d been on the day he’d stopped her heart and started it again.
She’d been his that day; the burden of her everlasting happiness had fallen to him, and to him alone. He had become, he’d always thought, the axis upon which her life would spin from that moment forward. He’d robbed her of family and former ties; he’d attempted to replace all that he’d stolen with himself.
He’d never stopped to consider that it was his life he’d altered. That’d he’d been free-falling. And in every city, every glittering ballroom, every back alley – through railway cars and steamships and old Plymouths with temperamental transmissions – Annabel had been the shining counterpoint to his darkness, the saint to counteract his sin. Her hands had seen blood, but in his mind, never without purpose. Her scars were soft and silver and only added to her pressed-flower loveliness. Her heart weaved passion into her fury, and grace into her fear; spun a child’s exuberant circles until his own tugged in response. He loved her with wild terror, and fierce selfishness, and she danced effortlessly through the landmines in his head, steady and gentle and terrible in her own ways.
“I will always be your Annabel.”
Belonging to one another had sustained them all these years.
He followed her through the store. She was dressed in black leggings and a pair of black buckled boots that had been around since his Billy Idol bleached hair days, a sweater that was loose and feminine and mysterious. Her sable hair was knotted at her nape, loose wisps framing the heart-shaped splendor of her face. Trivial things captured her interest: a fashion magazine, a jar of bath salts, a bottle of chewable vitamin C. She added a vanilla scented candle and a bright blue comb to the lipstick in his hands. Two Snickers bars, a box of microwave popcorn, and something starring Hugh Grant on DVD.
She plucked a pair of scissors from a bin and turned to him, snapping the blades together. “Haircut? It’s time, sweetie, really. Have you seen yourself?” She gestured to him, undaunted by the expression he conjured. “I’m all for the luscious locks, but you’re getting into Middle Earth territory.”
His brows lifted. “I would have gone with eighties glam rock.”
“Hmm…not enough volume for that.”
The scissors joined the rest of her selections.
In the frosted glass of the ice cream freezers, he caught a glimpse of their reflections. They looked like a struggling thirty-year-old rockstar and his teenage groupie. He glanced away.
“I think I’m all done,” Annabel announced as she rubbed a dollop of tester lotion between her palms. “We can go.”
“So the baroness decrees,” Fulk said, and earned an elbow in the ribs…and an adoring glance for it.
“I can decree things,” she defended as he followed her to the register. “It’s” – she put on a lofty, overdone imitation of his natural accent – “within my rights, is it not?”
He plucked a strand of hair loose from her bun. “It is.”
There was a couple at the counter, one that did not just look young, but was young. They were in their twenties, a blonde boy with scruff on his cheeks and a redheaded girl with the sort of willowy, graceful build Fulk knew would remind Annabel of her sister Lily. The boy held the handles of their shopping basket and even three strides away, Fulk could discern the frisson of unhappy tension between the pair. Nothing playful, ephemeral, or tender existed in the gaze they shared. Fulk feigned no understanding of romance, but he’d been married for…a while…and he knew what passion looked like…and what it didn’t.
“Why the hell would you think that?” the boy hissed as the cashier tried gallantly to ignore the unfolding argument while she rang up the condoms and soda in the couple’s basket.
The girl made a nervous, fluttering gesture with her hands. “I just thought…I just…” Her eyes brimmed with tears, her nose twitching as she fought not to cry.
“You thought what, like, I wanted to meet your parents are something? God, are you that stupid?” His voice was low and savage.
“It – it’s been two months, Kyle,” she protested weakly. Her pulse fluttered in the base of her throat. Her courage rallied for a fleeting moment. “It’s not too much to ask for you to meet my family.”
“Um, it is when I told you I wasn’t looking for anything serious right now. Do you, like, not remember me saying that? I wasn’t kidding.”
The girl put a hand over her throat and her tears fell in delicate crystal streams down her cheeks.
“Jesus,” the boy – Kyle – swore, turning away from her. “I don’t have time for this.”
Fulk laid a hand on Annabel’s shoulder, staying her. He felt her gather breath, ready to launch an inappropriate attack against the jackass in front of them. He flexed his fingers, tips pressing into her sweater. No. It’s not your business. But he loved her for wanting to say something, and the mutinous look she flashed up to him.
After he paid for Annabel’s selections, enduring the surreptitious censure of the cashier – “Yes,” he wanted to tell her, “I’m too old for her. And we’re both too old for your judgment” – they walked back to the apartment and rode up the elevator in the easy sort of silence that comes from countless hours together. The kind of silence that was comforting and not awkward. He took her tiny hand in his along the sidewalk. She slipped one of her hands into his back pocket in the elevator.
Annabel popped two bags of popcorn and the smell of artificial butter product filled their little apartment. Fulk ate his Snickers sitting cross-legged on the end of the bed, while the vanilla candle flickered and Hugh Grant Britted it up on the TV and Annabel knelt behind him, combing his freshly-dampened hair with her new blue comb and trimming off inches at a time with delicate, intricate care. She only half-watched the movie and hummed a lost bit of a forgotten song to herself as she worked, her fingers light and quick as they sifted through his hair. The scratch of the comb on his scalp was soothing. Her knees dug into the mattress and created little dips that tucked beneath his legs. Her breasts pressed between his shoulder blades as she leaned forward to comb along the crown of his head.
His mind wandered back to Walgreens, and the unhappy girl and her dull stupid boyfriend who hadn’t wanted to be her boyfriend at all.
“Anna.” He caught her wrist and pulled her arm across his chest, pulled her into him until her front was pressed all along his back and her breath tickled across his ear. He turned his head a fraction and felt the flutter of her lashes against his temple. “Darling.” He swallowed. Her skin was smooth white satin in his hand, her hair silk as it rustled against his cheek. “You know, don’t you, that I will always be your monster.”
He felt her smile into his throat. “I do know.”
When he tugged at her wrist, she moved around and climbed into his lap, her task forgotten for the moment as she folded herself between his legs and slipped her arms around his neck.
“Thank you.” She rested her forehead against his, until all he could see was the lush green of her eyes. “For being remarkable.”
And no tiny apartment and night spent lipstick shopping could take that away from them.
“It’s all for you,” he told her, and could feel how much she understood that, in the warmth of her touch against the back of his neck, and the sweetness of her lips pressing against his.
“I can’t imagine living like that,” she said against his mouth, “like those poor kids at the store. That would be worse than dying.” She pulled back a fraction, her gaze soft, but assessing. “That would be worse than living forever.”
He smiled and it was reflected back to him in her eyes. “Me neither.” Sometimes terrible things couldn’t be killed. But he’d found that his one rare delight could hold back the horrors of the unending. The girl in his arms was worth the price of immortality.