ON NEW YEAR’S EVE, the house is buzzing. Caterers, catering suppliers, and flower arrangers fall over each other’s feet in the hustle and bustle to get everything organised.
I meet Amanda in the hallway. “Why are you making such a fuss?”
“Well.” She smiles. “It is like a New Year’s party and a bon-voyage.”
I roll my eyes. “Amanda!”
“Leave me, I am having fun.” She laughs exuberantly.
“So much for only a few of us?”
“No, I have invited the whole village and the neighbouring village, as well as all the local wine producers.” She thinks a moment. “I think I invited almost one hundred people.”
I gasp. “What?”
“I am so excited. Oh, and before I forget, it is a black tie event. Dress appropriately.”
“Amanda! What am I supposed to wear? Last minute and you tell me, dress appropriately.”
“I have already bought you something. It is hidden in my cupboard.”
I grimace. “I hope it isn’t shiny!”
“Not at all. But you have to excuse me now—lots to do.” She hurries away.
I walk down the passageway and I feel like going for a walk. William is with Claude and I hear Edward and Herman in the living room. I want to ask them if one of them would join me for a walk outside, but their voices are raised and before I walk into the room, I hear Herman say, “We should have gone with Callum.”
Confused I wonder what they are talking about because I have successfully avoided Callum since Christmas and I thought he was doing the same. I did not realise he is not here.
“He left without telling anyone,” Edward retaliates.
“We could have followed him.”
Edward says solemnly, “Those idiots who attacked Susie are long gone. He will never find them.”
Herman sounds worried. “His note to Amanda said he would be back yesterday. Something has happened to him.”
My heart sinks.
“No. He will be fine. After what he did for the Four Judges, Callum will not be overpowered easily. He used to be savage, now he is just plain merciless.”
Incredulous Herman asks, “He told you details?”
“Yes. Didn’t he tell you?”
“No. Why would he tell you and not me?” I hear the disappointment in Herman’s voice. Herman and Callum had been together far longer than Edward and Callum.
“I have a suspicion he needed to talk and I was available, but he is embarrassed by the level he had to sink to and he does not know me as long as he knows the rest of you. Perhaps he thought you would condemn him if he told you the truth.”
I hear Justin’s voice echo toward me and I jump in my skin. “Hey, what are you doing?”
I turn to him annoyed and I shush him, but I cannot eavesdrop any more because the entire northern hemisphere knows I have been standing here listening.
Walking past the living room door with Justin, I glance in. Edward looks at me with an amused smirk on his face.
That afternoon Amanda brings me a sapphire blue dress. It is not shiny, but beautiful, it reminds me of the dress my mother is wearing in the portrait over the fireplace in the living room, except her dress in the picture is champagne coloured but it has the same style.
“It is beautiful, Amanda.” I hold the dress up carefully; I did not want to ruin it.
“I thought it would match your eyes and it does perfectly. Tonight we will put your hair up. It will look nice.”
I rush to a chest of my most precious possessions and I scratch through it. I find the first necklace Francois gave my mother and Amanda exclaims, “That will go perfectly with the dress.”
“I know. When I saw the dress, I immediately thought of it.”
I am strangely excited to have a ball in the ballroom. I have always wanted one.
We get a girl from the village to babysit William in his room and I worriedly go into his room frequently to make sure he has everything he needs. The last time I go in, he tells me stubbornly, “Mommy, I am watching this. Stop boffering me.”
I smile and taking a deep breath, I force myself to relax.
The niggling feeling in my stomach, directly connected to Callum who has gone after the two men who attacked me, is not so easy to get rid of, though. Sadly, I consider that he hates the fact I am human so much, he has to go out and take revenge. I force myself not to cry.
Later, when I am dressed and ready to go downstairs, there is a knock at my door and I open it expectantly. I smile widely when I see Claude.
He looks handsome in a white shirt, penguin tails, and a black bow-tie. He pushes his finger in between the collar and his neck uncomfortably and I cannot help laughing. Bowing at the waist, he says politely, “You look very nice, Susie.”
I curtsy playfully. “Why thank you, my lord.”
“My lord. I like the sound of that. It makes me sound important.”
I slide my arm into his and together we walk down the stairs and to the ballroom. The entire entrance hall is decorated with white lilies. The tables groan under the food.
I have already decided I am not eating tonight. I am too scared I drop something and it leaves a large oily patch on this pretty dress. I dance, I dance and I dance. Edward, Herman, and Claude rotate continuously. I am exhausted and when Claude bows in front of me again, I decline, laughing amused.
After I walk out onto the balcony, I lean against the balustrade railing. I take a few deep breaths and I wish I could take the shoes I am wearing off.
Amanda comes out and I laugh when I see her. “Oh, Amanda, this is so lovely. I love it. I have always wondered what a ball would feel like in this large room.”
“I am glad you like it.” She asks worriedly, “Aren’t you hungry? I am told the food is very good.”
“I am too scared to eat. I will eat left-over’s tomorrow.”
She pulls her face disgusted and I laugh loudly.
Claude comes out onto the balcony and he says poetically, “There you are, Susie, the prettiest girl here. My arms ache to hold you again.”
I laugh. “My body is aching.”
He seems taken aback. “To dance with me?”
“No, sorry – just aching.”
He smirks. “Come, you cannot be tired yet. You are only twenty-three, a young spring chicken.”
I reply, “Excuse me, I would like to inform you of a little fact regarding my true age.”
He whispers, “Hush, not in public. What will people think of us?”
He leads me to the dance floor and he pulls me into his arms. We dance the waltz and when the music fades into the next song, I say, “I am sorry, Claude, but I really cannot dance one more step.”
I step away from Claude and I see him nod to someone behind me. I turn around smiling, but then the smile fades from my face when I see Callum standing in front of me.
He is wearing a crisp white shirt and black trousers. The top buttons of the shirt are undone, and the bow-tie hangs loosely around his neck under the collar. His blonde hair is tied back loosely with a black string behind his head.
Gazing into my eyes, without a word, he folds his arms around my waist and he takes my hand in his other hand. He folds his large hand around mine and slowly we move to the music. I feel light as a feather, the dull ache in my feet miraculously fade. He pulls me closely to him and I have no choice but to rest my head against his quiet, strong chest.
He leans down and he whispers in my hair, close to my ear, “Your heartbeat is thunderous.”
I stiffen and I start to pull away from him, but he pulls me tightly into him again.
He says softly, “That day when I kissed you in the vineyard and on Christmas day, your heart sped up so quickly, I thought I was killing you.”
I feel the heat rise up my neck.
He continues, “I find it all so strange, yet beautiful.”
When the song is finished, he takes my hand and he leads me silently from the dance floor. I follow him willingly out of the ballroom and through the hall, down the passage and through the kitchen to the cellar. Without saying anything, we walk to his old reading room at the end of the well-known passage and when I walk into the room there is, what looks like, a hundred candles burning.
I ask amused, “Do you want to set the château on fire, leaving all these candles burning?”
He turns to me and he silences me by kissing me. I reach up to him and I let my arms slide around his broad shoulders. His arms wind tightly around my waist and he holds me close to him.
He pulls away slowly. “My red-haired girl, you look gorgeous tonight.”
I blush embarrassingly. Since I turned human, my blood likes to rush to places at the most inopportune moments, publicly displaying my inner feelings.
“All those years, all I could ever think of is you, but when I got back, it felt as if I was left on the outside of your life. Although at first, I was so stunned when I realised you were human, I realised the silly things you say and do, the way you walk, your smile, the way you look at me, the smell of your skin, nothing else changed. Although you are now human, you are still the Susanna I love.”
I reach up and tentatively I touch my lips to his.
He groans and whispers against my lips, “You make me feel so … I don’t know, but I cannot stop thinking about you.” He lifts me effortlessly and he almost crushes my feeble body against his as we kiss.
The candles are burning low and he carries me to the couch. I sit down and I notice heather scattered throughout the room. I look up at him. “Where did you find all these flowers in the middle of winter?”
He sits down next to me, turning to face me. “On my way back, I bought a truckload.”
“You went after the men who turned me human, didn’t you?”
He looks shocked, but he replies honestly, “I did, and I disposed of them swiftly.”
Softly I ask, “Why? Do you hate the fact I am human so much?”
Seriously, he replies, “At first I was raging mad, but then I fell in love with you all over again. So, the reason I went after them was not only because of what they did to you but also to protect our lifestyle. Those two were breaking the laws of our community.” He looks at me imploringly. “Amanda says you have decided to remain human.”
I take a deep breath. “Yes, for William. I have no choice.”
“I hear Andrew had the virus, but he did not survive the turning. I have heard of it happen before.”
I smirk. “If he survived, the Four Judges would have probably sent you to kill him anyway.”
Callum looks away and I see a shadow cross his features. He reflects, “If Andrew had the virus and you had the virus, is it possible William has it?”
I recoil and shake my head in denial. I have been so ignorant, never even considered it and this would mean if Callum thought of it, there is every possibility the Four Judges were also watching us closely.
He moves from the couch and sits down on the carpeting on the floor, between the small pink heather blossoms and takes my hand, gently pulling me down with him. He pulls me onto his lap and then he rests his ear against my chest. I sit still, feeling mortified.
He looks up at me. “It is so beautiful the way your heart speeds up when you see me.”
I gasp loudly, embarrassed beyond reproach. I feel the blood rush up to my face.
He smiles. “And the way I can visibly see your embarrassment. You cannot hide anything. Maybe I should leave you like this.”
“I love you, Susanna, and I still want you to marry me. I want to spend literary forever with you, never growing old. I know I let you down previously, but this time I will never let you go. You are the only girl I have ever allowed into the hollow space in my chest. I want to be with you all my life, forever.”
I am not sure if that is what I want. I have already decided I wanted to grow old in this body and I wanted to move on. What if I decide to live forever with Callum, and then William does not have the virus? Although when William was born, I did contemplate the finality of death and I wanted neither one of us to ever move on because I would never survive without William. William is my ultimate purpose; the destiny I have always searched for.
His voice is urgent, when he insists, “Suppose you got older and you outgrew me and left me behind. Suppose I could not contemplate forever without you?”
I reply pessimistically, “We cannot escape the Four Judges.”
“I will always be here to protect you and William.”
“I cannot discuss this now. I do not even want to consider William might be in danger.”
Gently he pushes me down until I am laying down on the carpeting, amongst the heather, and then he lies down next to me. He drapes his arm across my waist. I look up into his eyes and I can see my own reflection.
He says softly, “Amanda says you want to experience the world as a human, to confront death?”
Hesitantly I say, “I wanted that before William was born, but now I don’t know what I want any more.”
He smiles forlornly. “If you confronted death in this delicate body, what would I do if you failed?”
I smile faintly. “I have always wondered how it would be to know life is fleeting, to make the best of each day, live fully as if each day might be my last.”
“We are not as immortal as you imagine and we should also make the best of each day. Look what happened to William and Shayne, only two people who are personally connected to you.”
He leans down to me and touches his lips to mine, as I bring my arms up around his shoulders. He moves his lips to my neck and then I feel his teeth against my skin. For a moment, I wonder if it will hurt. I close my eyes, waiting. Part of me wants him to do it.
However, he pulls away from me gently and he smiles teasingly.” I will let you go this time.”
The candles burn out one after the other and I fall asleep on the floor with Callum. I am tightly cradled in his strong arms.
Later he pulls a blanket over me and I hear him mumble how frail and noisy I am now.