The tray shook slightly in Zahra’s hands and April gave her a knowing sideways glance. In the span of two days, Master Phillip had come twice to the kitchens and once had almost caught her and April in the gardens taking a break from Ms. Delaney. It had been a few days since the marketplace incident and April definitely didn’t miss her friend’s awkwardness when her rescuer came up. Anyone with eyes could see what was happening.
The butler who had led them to the drawing room door raised an imperious brow and Zahra did her best to still her hands. She had managed to evade him since that day in the library when he had almost caught her reading. Just imagining what could have happened made her heart sink. Reading slaves were valuable slaves – or dangerous ones depending on how you looked at it. She wasn’t a slave any more but who knew what would happen if he discovered…
And so she had avoided him. She had noticed him following her down to the kitchens and ducked out before he could find her. Cook, however, had noticed. The second time, she had not been around but he had come down to the kitchens anyway. The endless ribbing thanks to Cook’s gossip was just barely tolerable. Even now, the butler gave her a stern look which Zahra translated as displeasure at her deigning to think about one of the Masters’ esteemed guests in a casual light.
April nudged her gently with her elbow and Zahra took a deep breath as the butler knocked and then swung the drawing room door open, stepping aside with a bow to let the girls in. Mistress Lavinia sat on the settee with Master Lucas and Master Paul and Phillip stood by the fireplace.
The latter two had been discussing something important it seemed but then Phillip’s eyes met Zahra’s and she hastily looked away. She could feel his gaze on her back and it made her skin tingle. The path to the serving table seemed to be a mile long but she made it without incident. She studiously ignored him as Mistress Lavinia proceeded to instruct them on how to set the goblets and pitcher. Then they were excused and they quietly left the room with the butler shutting the door behind him.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” whispered April. Zahra hid her face behind her hands and took another breath. It had actually been worse. She was a bundle of nerves! The last time she had been that nervous had probably been the night Hadi was supposed to have met her father. She was acting like a child. She remembered the first time she had watched the men spar and thought how brave and handsome they looked. She had felt something similar when Phillip stood between her and that man. How very brave and handsome he had looked.
Then, pulling her hands from her face, she realised she had been left behind. There was no one about and if Ms. Delaney found her there, she would have a whole new set of problems to worry about.
Before she could take two steps however, cool hands grabbed her and dragged her into an adjoining room. This felt somehow like a living nightmare. She stood rooted to the spot as a flame flickered to life in front of her. Then her heart rate picked up for very different reasons as Phillip lit a candle nearby. How could he have seen it? It was pitch black in the room she had only just identified as the parlour, Mistress Lavinia’s favourite room.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said noting her very evident surprise, “I seem to have trouble finding you in this great big house.” Zahra cleared her throat and willed herself to relax.
“My apologies, Master Phillip.” She was proud of herself. She sounded sure and calm. Ms Delaney would have been proud of her good manners, although perhaps not of the circumstances in which her good manners were being practiced.
“Just Phillip will do,” he said with a teasing grin. That made her hesitate.
“I… that would be rude of me sir.” She heard him sigh in frustration and it made her want to smile. Call him ‘Phillip’ indeed! Ms. Delaney would have a right fit and April would be beside herself with glee, no doubt planning the birth of their third child.
“Well, that’s not important,” he said from much closer to her. She had been so lost in thought she had not seen him come closer. He was only inches away now and it was far too late to retreat. Then he tipped up her chin, raising her startled face to his searching one and she tensed. What was he doing?
It was suddenly painfully clear that they were all alone in this room lit only by a single candle. She should have bolted the second she had realised where she was. She should have screamed when he had grabbed her and run like a mad woman all the way to the kitchens. And yet, even as he looked her over, she felt no real fear – merely nervousness about the situation. His gaze dropped to her lips and she chose to study the way the dim light played on his dark curls.
“It looks better. Does it hurt still?” he asked gently. She was lost for a moment; did what hurt? Then it all came rushing back and she managed to take a step back away from him.
“Not at all, sir,” she responded and dropped her gaze back to the lush carpet at their feet. After a long moment, she went on, if only to break the silence, “Is there anything else I might do for you?” Phillip chuckled and opened the door snuffing out the candle. He indicated that she should go before him and she curtsied walking as calmly as she could out of the room.
“Maybe don’t disappear so completely next time I’m trying to find you,” he said in a deliciously low murmur as she walked past. Not knowing what to do, she curtsied again and fairly ran down the hall towards the safety of the kitchens. Her heart was racing and her face was hot. Everything around her was whirling and she nearly jumped ten feet when a hand on her arm stopped her retreat.
April had come to find her.
“Where did you disappear to?” she asked looking slightly worried and then casting a glance behind her. Hiding a smile, Zahra gave a muttered response and changed the subject. There was no need to encourage April’s fertile imagination about something that was never going to happen after all.
“Do you think they already know that they carry us blood every evening?” asked Lucas swishing the dark red liquid in his cup.
“Of course not,” snapped Lavinia, “there’d be an uproar if they did. The only other person who knows about the contents of the pitchers is Roberta and do you see her telling anyone?”
Phillip said nothing regarding his drink quietly. He had finally seen her again, the interesting servant from before. Although what exactly it was that made her so interesting was well beyond him. She had been less frightened of him this time. Ms. Delaney had done her job well if she could now face him properly as a servant – which did ease his mind a bit – but he wanted more.
The cut on her lip had mostly healed. But he couldn’t help noticing the startling beauty of her skin in the candlelight. She was exquisite. He wondered if she knew that she had brilliant flecks of light in her irises. Her plump lips, just begging to be kissed had been only inches away. If he hadn’t caught himself…
He looked up to find the entire room staring at him.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I was just saying that we should go out tomorrow night and have a run about town. There should be some information somewhere about this unease with the vampires.”
Oh, they had switched topics already.
“I wouldn’t mind. I think it’s time I had a look around.” There was another more private reason he wanted to go but that wasn’t important. Paul had told him about the unrest in the vampire world. Some upstart was starting some sort of insurgence with the aim of usurping the throne. It was part of the reason Paul had wanted to see him a few nights ago. He nodded at Paul now and drained his glass.
“We have to be careful,” said Paul looking down at his drink. Lavinia placed a hand on his arm and looked thoughtfully into the fire. Being the closest residence to town, who knew how long they would be safe? Who knew how much time they had left before something happened?
“Well now, I’m glad both Lucas and Phillip are around,” said Lavinia patting his hand and then squeezing it, “I know we need all the help we can get.” Murmurs of agreement followed this statement but nobody seemed eager to talk about anything. The future was unclear and they were in danger. Unrest meant fear and fear was powerful enough to overtake whole kingdoms.
“Well then, I’ve had enough of this sombre mood. I think I’ll head out for a little stroll, see what I can find on your grounds – if you don’t mind Paul.”
He waved Lucas off and squeezed Lavinia’s hand back.
“I think we should go for a walk,” suggested Lavinia, “it’s a lovely night out. We won’t interfere in Lucas’ hunting.”
Paul, still pensive and silent finally turned to his wife and gave her a smile. He patted her hand, drained his glass and together they left Phillip to his thoughts.
Everything had been up in the air lately. An announcement had been made to vampires everywhere that the previous regent had been chosen and then that he had attempted to betray the Monarch. This had led to their title being stripped away and their banishment from all records. As a result, nobody knew who they were. Then the news came that another regent would be selected from among the masses.
This was around the time the unrest had begun and nobody could rightly tell why. It had been the crown’s strategy then, to strengthen their position by choosing another Regent. Paul had explained all this to Phillip a few moments before he handed him an intricate box – the same one that sat at the bottom of his travelling case – and named him the new Regent of the Monarchy.
Phillip turned and strode to the window. This had never been in his plan. He had never wanted to be superior or important. This was a great load to bear. There were responsibilities he now had to take on whether he liked it or not.
And the only thing he could really think about was a dark-skinned beauty who had captured his attention and refused to let go.
Maybe he should just have her so he could get her out of his system. She was something new and exciting, like a child’s toy. Perhaps if he actually got to know her, he might change his mind about his interest. Then again, that was exactly what he wanted - to get to know her. She had been a slave, he learned later from Roberta, after much subterfuge, something that didn’t surprise him.
How had she gotten to serve in such a high-ranking household anyway? It didn’t matter. He smiled now vowing to find out all he could about her. In such troubling times, he would like to distract himself, if only for a moment, before he really got into it. He had a duty to his kind, even though he was a shared-blood vampire, a low rank “halfer”, which is what made him perfect for the post, Paul had said.
Surprisingly forward-thinking, Paul had stated that perhaps it was time to change the old rules and bring in some fresh perspective. The monarchs had always been vampires, as far as anyone knew, dating back to the previous millennium. This time, when he was given the responsibility of choosing a Regent for the Crown, he could only think of Phillip. And they hadn’t had the best relationship because of Paul’s many biases but he had nobody else in mind for the position.
Phillip sighed now and looked out over the lawn. The pale moon had risen high. The maid-servant, Rose, was probably asleep by now. He drained the contents of his glass and called for the butler to clear the dishes. If he knew anything about the family's "midnight snack," he said nothing and respectfully held the door open so Phillip could leave. Maybe he should join Lucas on his hunt. The game on Paul’s grounds was particularly good.
Or he could go through the papers he had carried with him and try to figure out how to save his farm. He could deal with some of the correspondence now and then go out hunting if there was time. Or perhaps he could rest up so that in the morning he would get to follow Rose around. It reeked of desperation but she intrigued him and he couldn’t help but wonder what lay beneath.
Feeling a little more light-hearted at the thought of interacting with this fascinating creature again, he went whistling his way to his chambers.