The Man Behind the Curtain
Walking gingerly into the same coffee shop she delivered Cole's package to, Madeline felt like she was re-winding her life. The same soothing scent of roasted coffee beans. The same cozy atmosphere of bookshelves and easy chairs. For a moment she wondered that if she could go back in time, would she have made the same choices?
Yes. Yes, she would.
Dressed in a very unassuming and unflatteringly pair of old, baggy sweatpants and a light sweater the color of cornsilk, she weaved her way around the groupings of chairs and tables looking for Scott. She was in a lot of discomfort, and found herself taking extremely small steps as she walked, fearful of the shooting pain that would manifest should there be any gap in her stride. He spotted her first, rising up from a chocolate-brown recliner to meet her. She let him take her hand and guide her to the area where he had previously been sitting, only further back to a pair of high barstools at a tall cafe table. Carefully, she scooted her rump onto one of the seats, hoping not to damage anything in the process.
“I am so sorry,” he whispered trying to take her hand. “Please don’t do this. Give me one more chance, one more night, and I’ll make it up to you. We can’t let it end like this.”
“I can’t. I just can’t,” Madeline replied, pulling her hand out of his reach before he could grasp it. “Every time we get close, I am going to be thinking back to what happened. Don’t you see I’m not going to be able to relax again around you? It’s not going to work.”
“How do you know that?” Scott said, beginning to raise his voice, but then catching himself and calming down. “You won’t know until you can at least give me one more chance. Then if what you say about your feelings are true, I’ll let you go. We can end it.”
Madeline’s brows began to furrow in frustration. She knew her own feelings. She knew that what he was proposing was a waste of time.
“No. I’m sorry but no,” she stopped him, lowering her voice so no one around them could hear. “I’ve decided I am not going to date anyone that’s not human. You’ve made me realize that as a human I am fragile. You or any other non-human can easily break me. I can’t build a relationship tip-toeing around danger and chances. If you care about me, you’ll understand. This may be about us, but it’s also about how unconventional your kind dating my kind is.”
“Just one night?” Scott repeated.
“Please don’t make this any more difficul…”
“Any more difficult?!” Scott cut her off, again raising his voice. “I’m sorry if this inconveniences you.”
Nearby, other patrons were stealing curious glances at the pair. In the calm and serene setting of the coffee house, their rising voices were easy to distinguish.
“Are you even thinking about my feelings?” Scott continued. “Any idea what this is going to do to me? What this is going to do to my life?”
His life? Madeline thought. What the hell is he talking about?
“This is going to ruin me. Think about that when you start going on again about being inconvenienced!”
“Scott, please calm down,” Madeline asked, realizing even more people were starting to take notice of his loud voice. “I don’t want people to notice you, for your own sake.”
“So you care about what people think about me, but you don’t care about what you’re doing to me?”
Bolting upright from his chair, Scott clenched his fists to his sides and grimaced menacingly to no one in particular. His chestnut eyes were ablaze with a mix of anger and frustration as his breathing became more and more labored. He was about to do something impulsive, Madeline could read it in his body language, but then he suddenly stopped himself, bring his volatile emotions under control.
Without saying another word to her, he stomped out of the coffee shop, confrontationally bumping into patrons along the way.
Seeing his silhouette all but bust out of the cafe door on his way out, Madeline exhaled and relaxed her entire body. The whole meeting was substantially more taxing than she’d expected.
“At least he kept himself in check,” a voice from behind her stated, startling her.
“How long have you been here?” she asked Levi quietly as he took a seat at the stool previously occupied by Scott.
“Oh I’ve been here for the past hour,” he confessed. “Got here about thirty minutes before lover-boy did. You okay?”
“As to be expected,” she replied honestly. “Why are you here exactly?”
“Insurance,” Levi admitted. “I didn’t expect him to do anything stupid, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.”
Madeline glared sharply. Was he trying to say he didn’t expect her to be able to handle things?
“Don’t give me that look,” Levi replied with a smile. “I wasn’t going to step in at all unless he started a physical fight.”
“Well thank you for having my back then,” she managed. “But if you really want to be helpful, you can take me to The Golden Lotus for drinks. I think I could do with some self-medicating.”
Back at the hotel, Scott was throwing a horrendous tantrum.
With a malicious snarl, he plunged both hands at the king-sized bed, gripping handfuls of linen and tearing away the sheets and duvet, tossing them to the floor. He had kicked the chairs over and flipped both the work desk and table across the room. The house phone was yanked off the nightstand; its cord ripped out of the wall. Nests of wires now hung where wall sconces used to be. The entire suite was in shambles.
For a moment Scott stood in the center of the room, breathing heavily and making dark, animalistic sounds. He wanted to kill, with so much rage in his mind, but it was still too early in the day. Eyeing a floor lamp in the corner to the left of the large picture window, he took a few steps toward it, planning to send it crashing through the glass and onto the street below, when his cell phone rang.
It was Cole.
He knew he had to answer it, and there was no way he was going to talk himself around this one. Scott had no choice but to fess up to the situation.
“Hello,” he answered, still breathing arduously.
“You sound out of breath, young man. What’s going on?” Cole asked.
“Madeline broke up with me,” Scott confessed with a snarl. “I really tried to do it in a private place so I could just knock her out until I could convince her to go with me to London.”
“Knock her out? Scott, that is not the job you were given. No harm is to come to her. Why did she break up with you to begin with? Last time we spoke I was under the impression things were going swimmingly.”
“Well you see, I sort of accidentally bit her in bed…”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
“I see,” Cole said slowly. This was a possibility they had accounted for, but it was still disappointing. “New orders then. You are to fly back to London as soon as possible.”
“But what about Madeline?” Scott asked in a voice that was both frustrated and desperate.
“What about her? Since you were unable to perform the task assigned to you, she is now none of your concern. Master Gideon will decide what to do next. In the meantime, you are to travel back home, is that understood?”
“Yeah,” Scott replied grudgingly.
“Good. Provide me with your flight information as soon as it’s available, and I’ll be sure to have a driver pick you up at Heathrow.”
Setting the traditional phone back down on its receiver, Cole sat back in his leather chair and tented his fingers. Not one who enjoyed being the bearer of bad news, he hesitated for a few moments before divulging the information to the man who sat across from him.
It was roughly 3:00 a.m. in London, the perfect time of the morning for a spot of tea and intelligent conversation. Although it was out of the ordinary for two vampires to be drinking tea, the beverage was a unique concoction of Gideon’s creation. He had perfected it long ago; hell-bent on recreating the drink that was all the rage in the 17th century. He had found the fragrance of tea to be absolutely divine, and it drove him into an immediate obsession. It didn’t take him more than a week and a dozen or so blood donors to develop a formula that allowed a mix of fresh blood, tea leaf infusion, and alchemy to create a very near perfect cup of imitation tea. And as with most all of his creations, he kept it a closely guarded secret shared with only a few, and although Cole was allowed the pleasure of drinking it, he hadn’t a clue how it was actually made.
As Gideon’s graceful, long fingers wrapped around the handle of the delicate china cup, his other hand carefully held the saucer, lifting them both in mannered unison. He paid no mind to Cole, his lesser, as the older man, in appearance only, sat in silence thinking. Gideon was already aware of the situation. It was the suspected outcome actually, but allowing the lost neophyte named Scott to stumble recklessly through the relationship with Miss Madeline gave them a lot of foresight into her personality and morals. As physically trained as she'd become to survive in the world she'd now chosen to call home, Madeline was inadequately aware of her place in it, or of which path she would follow as the future approached her. She was at a point now where she could be shaped. She would follow whichever path was the first to be illuminated for her.
In contrast to Cole’s pillar-like stature, Gideon appeared delicate, girlish even. His long, light blond hair was gathered up over his ears on both sides, pulled back with a simple steel clip. His pleasant blue eyes gave the impression of youthful vigor and brightness, a contrast to his actual age and the dark depths of his soul. His face was flawless, a credit to his Nordic heritage, and despite the elegance and decorum he exuded, one could argue he was the most terrifying vampire in all of Europe. His physical strength rivaled that of the fae, and despite all that was known of his past was that he emerged from the undocumented history of the brutal Nordic clans of the North, no one challenged his superiority.
“It seems Scott has failed,” Cole said finally. “Miss Madeline has broken off their relationship after being bitten.”
With a smooth gesture that didn’t so much as tilt the level of the tea in his cup, Gideon set both cup and saucer down on the table in front of him before leaning back in his chair.
“He is very lucky that’s all that happened,” Gideon replied, his voice edged with steel. “Once a rat, always a rat. Still, he provided information we would not have been able to get so easily otherwise. You say he likes to kill?”
“Yes, sir,” Cole answered. “It provides a rush comparative to the drug use of his human years, and he likes the control aspect.”
“Don’t we all,” Gideon mused. “However, how we exert that control divides those who conquer from those that grovel. When he returns, assign him to the guard and have him start training as a soldier. If he wants to act like a rabid dog, then we shall make use of him as one.”
Gideon’s attention was suddenly elsewhere, fixed on a stoic-faced butler that entered the grand library from the door behind Cole.
“M’lady has arrived,” he announced with a deep, unemotional bow as he remained in place, waiting for Gideon to pass him and therefore release him of his proper posture.
“Excellent,” Gideon smile brightly as he rose from the armchair with the grace of an aristocrat. “We’ll discuss this matter further tomorrow, Cole.”
“Of course, sir.”
As he exited the grand library, Gideon ascertained that his clothing was immaculate and his thoughts were in check. Next to himself, his honored guest was the most influential person in the manor at the moment, and although their partnership was solidified in blood, there were still airs that needed to be put on.
After a short walk to the solarium, a room custom made using artificial sunlight and regulated humidity, the servants standing guard opened the large double doors for Gideon’s grand entrance.
It is always a pleasure, my dear,” Gideon beamed, approaching an unoccupied white garden chair that was designed to look as if it was made out of vines. “Sorry to bid you here at such an off hour.”
“Nonsense, Gideon,” the woman already seated across from him replied. “Any and all news of our progress excites me. It was no inconvenience at all.”
“Can I get you any refreshment?”
“That won’t be necessary,” she smiled warmly, raising her hand in refusal. “But I thank you for the offer. Now, what news do you have?”
“Straight to the point,” Gideon sighed wistfully. “A woman after my own heart.”
“You are too kind.
“She has enough of the blood to be useful. The sword was a match.”
“This is fantastic news!” the woman across from him replied joyously, clasping her hands together. “I am confident that with my knowledge and your skills we will be able to deconstruct that necklace and use it to our advantage. All that is left is her grooming.”
“Unfortunately, the mongrel we allowed to play with her has outlived his usefulness in that regard.”
“An expected outcome.”
“Quite,” Gideon agreed. “But we know enough of her nature to move to phase two now.”
“I take it plans are already underway?” the lady asked anxiously, twirling a strand of long, brilliantly-golden hair between two youthful, slender fingers.
“Of course, my dear. Of course.”
“Then I will begin preparations on my end,” she said rising gracefully from her garden chair. “I regret I cannot spend the night this evening, but this news demands events to be put in motion tonight that must simmer and multiply slowly so that they will be ripe for feasting upon when the time comes.”
“Understandable,” Gideon replied, promptly standing in the presence of a risen lady as etiquette dictated. “I will contact you again once she is in our care.”
He bowed like a true gentleman, taking the lady’s outstretched hand and bringing it to his lips gently. With a kiss that was both cordial and intimate, he bid her farewell and eyed her departure from the solarium.
She’d come a long way from the club-shy girl she was when she first stepped foot in The Golden Lotus. Comfortable enough in her own skin and clothing to be sitting in a booth near the bar with Levi and actually feel relaxed about it. Well, as relaxed as she could be, given what she’d gone through over the past few days. The responsible side of her warned that she should have probably stayed at the loft and relaxed, but she needed this. She needed to feel the attention of those she considered friends, and to be in a place she felt comforted by. It was a relatively slow night at The Golden Lotus, so she knew Maseo and company were floating around somewhere. Adding to her well-being, the modest heather-gray skirt and matching sweater Madeline wore felt unencumbering and cozy.
She sat staring at the milky ice in her White Russian until Levi snatched it away.
“You really need to find something better to drink,” he said disapprovingly. “Or at least something different.”
“But I like those,” Madeline whined. “With all the cream that’s in it, I figured you would too.”
“Ha. Ha. That’s so not funny. And just for that…” Levi signaled a waitress.
As one of the handful of pretty girls that worked the club approached, she placed her hand on Levi’s shoulder with too much familiarity, much to Madeline’s annoyance.
“Take this away and bring a couple of glasses of umeshu,” Levi ordered, placing Madeline’s half-finished drink on the waitress' tray.
Nodding, the attractive brunette waltzed away, stopping at another table to pick up a second order on her way back to the bar.
“What on earth are you ordering for me?” Madeline asked leaning back, careful of her injury, and crossing her arms.
“Something I know you’ll like,” Levi replied. “I don’t normally pick out drinks for people, but given your taste in things, I am fairly confident you will love this. It’s simple. It’s sweet. And it has a nice burn going down. Less alcohol content than your White Russian, so you can drink more with less damage to your reputation.”
“Hey, that was a one-time thing,” Madeline reminded him.
“Let me put it to you this way then,” Levi said with a sly smile. “Cloudy drinks are dangerous.”
He made a good point. Under normal circumstances, it would not matter, but during contract work, it was probably best to go with something else.
As they talked, Levi caught a whiff of something coppery in the direction of the entrance.
Keeping his expression playful and cocky, Levi’s gaze drifted around the club nonchalantly before settling on the cause of what was offending his nose. As the waitress returned with their drinks, Levi’s eyes caught sight of Maseo walking with purpose, one of the bouncers at his side, toward the podium where none other than Scott stood waiting to gain entrance.
Luckily, this was all happening behind Madeline. Levi didn’t want her to have to see his face ever again, especially so soon after what had recently befallen her. He could see Scott frantically glancing around tables, likely trying to spot Madeline. Levi could only imagine how many other places he’d gone with the hopes of finding her.
Unfortunately, the vampire’s eyes locked on the back of Madeline’s red curls and he became suddenly more agitated with the gentleman at the podium for not letting him pass.
Oblivious to what was going on behind her, Madeline simply stared at the drink placed in front of her. Its color was akin to ginger ale, and it had a strong, fruity scent. She also took note that it wasn’t served on the rocks, but with something green and prune-like resting at the bottom of the glass.
“What say we make your first taste a memorable one?” Levi grinned devilishly, not giving her time to respond before he took a mouthful of his drink and scooted toward her, eyes briefly locking with Scott’s to make sure the young vampire was watching.
Before Madeline realized what was happening, Levi leaned in for a kiss, placing his lips over her slightly parted mouth. As she raised her hands to his chest in protest, the sweet, chilled alcohol flowed from his mouth into hers, a pleasant elixir that she couldn’t resist swallowing. The taste of the umeshu, Levi’s scent of sandalwood, the warmth of his inviting lips, and the proximity of his body mixed to create an atmosphere that left her docile for a few moments, unable to refuse his advances as she closed her eyes.
Pulling slowly away, Levi took the opportunity of her eyes being shut to check on the situation at the podium.
Scott was livid.
He had tried to force his way in, which was a terrible idea. The bouncer had grabbed him by the arm and Maseo stood immovable in front of him with one palm centered sternly against Scott’s chest. With Levi’s impeccable hearing, he picked up on the conversation from afar.
“You want to do this? I’ll make you regret it,” Maseo warned with a voice infused with threat and maliciousness. “Go home, boy.”
Shrugging the bouncer off, Scott adjusted the sleeves of his jacket and turned to walk out. As upset and determined as he was, he knew there was no way he was going to overpower Maseo. He had no other choice but to leave.
“Why did you do that?” Madeline asked breathlessly, drawing Levi’s attention back to their table.
Looking back at her, he saw her blue eyes were wide in shock, her right hand raised, fingertips touching her lips at the memory of his being there. It was an expression he found tempting.
“You know me. Can’t help but to tease. It’s in my nature,” Levi responded slyly.
Of course, Madeline thought sarcastically. Why would it be anything other than that?
She was surprised at herself. That even after being on her own for so long, and being with Scott, her heart was so quick to tremble before him. Her feelings hadn’t changed one bit; they had only been invigorated by the distance she had purposely placed between him. And those feelings… she still needed to fight them. It was easier to do in the past, primarily because she didn’t want to be played for a fool. Didn't want to be the naive human who fell in love with her rescuer. Then, as she learned more about him and his appetite for women, Madeline realized she didn't want to be another one. And neither could she be a friend-with-benefits. That wasn’t how her heart worked.
To bad my fucking heart won’t listen to my fucking mind, she cursed herself. These feelings are so pointless.
Taking a deep breath, she focused on the flavor of the wine that had been in her mouth moments ago. He was correct in assuming she would like it. It had a sweetness that burned and went down smooth and easy. And as much as she wanted to drink more, she couldn’t. She had to leave. He'd rattled her too much. If ever she'd been on the brink of surrendering herself to him, it was now. She needed distance.
“Sorry for having you bring me out here,” Madeline apologized as she began to gather her things and carefully slid out of the booth. “It doesn’t seem like this was a good idea after all, given my condition and everything that’s happened recently. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Sure, we can head back,” Levi nodded sympathetically. “It’s best for you to be resting up anyway.”
“No,” Madeline cut him off. “I mean me heading back to my own apartment. I need to be alone. I’ll come get my things in a few days.”
As she rose and turned towards the entrance, Levi grabbed her wrist.
“That’s not wise,” he warned, voice serious. “If Scott is still in town, you can’t be traveling alone. I’ll get Maseo to get a taxi around the rear entrance; then security can monitor you leaving and make sure no one follows you.”
“Do you seriously think that's necessary?” she asked, arching a brow. The cloak and dagger of the situation just seemed over the top. It was just Scott after all, and she was trained to know when she was being followed.
“I do,” Levi replied.
“Fine,” Madeline caved in, lowering herself slowly back down on the edge of the booth.
Levi sent a brief text message to Maseo, and within minutes one of the bouncers approached their table.
“Miss Madeline, if you would please?”
The stocky, well-dressed gentleman spoke eloquently, his right hand gesturing toward the back of the establishment, where the rear entrance that serviced the club’s living quarters was located. The residential suites were not publicly known, which allowed Maseo and company, and even The Golden Lotus’ elusive owner, the utmost privacy.
Rising carefully again, Madeline bid Levi farewell before following her escort to the rear exit where an unmarked car awaited her.
The alleyway behind the club was shaped in such a way that exiting put one with the extension of the building’s brick wall to the left, and a view of the main street that the alley emptied out into on the right. As Madeline exited the doorway with the bouncer on her right side, he produced a large, black umbrella which shielded her upper body from the main street in that direction. The open car door shielded her lower body. And with the exterior brick wall blocking the left side, she was completely hidden from any prying eyes. Once safely inside the car, the darkly tinted windows protected her identity even more so, and inconspicuous security cameras blanketed all angles around the perimeter of the establishment.
As she made herself comfortable in the backseat of the town car, the driver radioed in and was given clearance to leave. Madeline directed him to drop her off on the opposite side of her block, where a different and more modern apartment building was located. After thanking the driver, she exited the car and carefully walked around the block to her building, slowly making her way home.