His ice blue eyes reflected his anticipation, deepening to nearly black as he lingered from the shadows of the veranda, silently awaiting her arrival.
Adrienne stepped to the open window in the drawing room. It was as tall as the length of the wall and led directly to the long veranda on the outside of the house. Since it was an unseasonably warm evening in February, she hoped to catch the breeze coming off the Mississippi River from where she stood. The nearly non-existent wind played ever so slightly with the sheer curtain that hung in the large window’s frame as it illuminated her slender frame. Even though she had not yet danced, her face behind the mask she wore was already finely misted with perspiration. She could feel small rivulets of the same running down between her breasts beneath the heavy eighteenth century costume that she had chosen to wear this evening to her friend’s masquerade ball.
In honor of Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday, her eccentric but dear friend, Angelique, was hosting tonight’s dance. As a result of the celebration, Adrienne knew the party would continue well into the wee hours of the morning, leaving many a drunken and weary soul in its wake. At the moment, however, she was happy to content herself by stepping aside to catch a bit of breeze. It was also a relief to seek seclusion in the window, a small distance from the festive revelry ensuing with each passing moment. She tried to focus and enjoy the quiet, crisp coolness of the river’s breeze floating across the veranda’s length.
This evening, her friend, Angelique, had insisted upon arranging a blind date for her with someone whom Adrienne had not met whose name was Jean-Luc, but he had not yet presented himself as of yet. Adrienne had to wonder if he would ever find her in the crowded drawing room, especially somewhat hidden by the sheer drapery the window provided. In her eccentric and playful way, and since everyone would be wearing a mask, Angelique had insisted that Jean-Luc must seek Adrienne out amidst the crowd of people. Vases of vibrant, golden marigolds filled the rooms of the large home, and the assorted tables of each room were laden with the same. Thus, once Jean-Luc found her, he would need to offer her a single marigold as a way to both reveal himself and to validate her identity. It was a fun ploy and also offered Adrienne a bit of choice in the matter. She would not have to reveal her identity unless she chose to do so once Jean-Luc presented himself – if he ever did. She sighed in the light breeze of the night. Chances were slim that Jean-Luc would find her. Opportunities in love had been dismal of late, and Adrienne could not help but think that one more such failed attempt would make little difference.
Of a sudden, she shivered as the hairs on the nape of her neck rose, and Adrienne quickly realized she was not alone nor hidden from sight where she stood. Glancing across the semi-darkened veranda, she stifled a gasp as a tall, lone figure emerged from its shadows.
“Excuse me. I didn't mean to frighten you,” a deep voice issued forth across the night air as he approached where she stood. The stranger wore a mask, but Adrienne could see the semblance of a smile playing beneath it upon his strong lips. It was a smile of irony if she was not mistaken. How strange. What could this man whom she hardly knew possibly find ironic at this moment?
“No, it is fine,” she said a bit nervously. “You just caught me off guard. I hoped to catch the breeze from the river as I stood here.” And also avoid the crowd of drunken people, she mentally added.
He casually drew even nearer, choosing to stand mere steps away until he was nearly in the window’s frame, too. “Yes, me, as well. The air is much cooler along the veranda, don’t you think?” he asked and watched her timid nod of agreement. He quietly smiled and then added, “But alas, I must confess that I was also seeking to escape the many unfortunate, drunken souls wreaking havoc inside.”
She acquiesced and nodded slightly, aware that this man’s presence seemed to permeate where they stood as well as the entire length of the veranda. Nervously, she glanced over her shoulder to assure herself she was not as alone as she felt. Moreover, had he just read her mind? It would be impossible for him to do that, would it not? That was ridiculous. A room of drunken souls was an easy observation to make on this night of celebratory endeavors during Mardi Gras.
Taking a deep sip from her glass of Merlot, Angelique inadvertently took note of the fact that the stranger had also chosen to wear the requested costume attire of the eighteenth century to the masquerade ball. However, his had surely cost a small fortune it was so splendid and believable. Nervously, she tugged at the skirt of dress, very self-conscious that what she wore was not nearly as authentic as his garments.
“You look lovely. It is as though you stepped from the pages of an eighteenth century French novel,” he surmised, his voice deeply melodic and almost lyrical as he spoke.
She glanced up, surprise etched across her brow. Surely, he must be teasing. In addition, and interestingly enough, that was twice now he had commented on that which filled her own thoughts. Was he real or was the wine she was drinking this evening playing games with her thought process?
“You can’t be serious,” she said adamantly. “At least, not while you look as though you’ve just stepped off the pages of an Anne Rice novel,” she laughed softly before adding, “That’s a very handsome costume you wear, sir. You most certainly are the epitome of the French nobleman.”
Seemingly surprised, the stranger arched a brow, but the semblance of a smile tugged at his lips. “I assure you I do not jest. You look lovely and divinely French in your garments,” he said. “I, on the other hand, am only wearing a dusty piece of fabric I pulled from my attic.”
Adrienne eyed him with a great deal of skepticism before she was distracted by a rowdy group of young people who crossed Laurel Street in front of the veranda. When she returned her gaze to the stranger, she noticed that even though it was minimal, he had drawn even nearer. She could now see intense ice, blue eyes behind the mask along with strands of thick, dark, and wavy hair that were tied back from his face in a single queue at the nape of his neck. He held a glass of what looked to be Merlot, which momentarily stained his lips whenever he drank from it. So close, it was easy to see that he was likely quite handsome beneath the mask. She wondered what he would look like without it. Thus far, he had been interesting even though mysterious, and she would very much like to see him without the mask.
“Are you originally from New Orleans?” he asked casually, taking another sip of his wine. His blue eyes were penetrating and observant as he spoke, making her a bit self-conscious.
“Yes, I’ve lived here all of my life. And you?” she asked.
“I’m from Paris,” he said.
“Paris? But you have no accent,” Adrienne observed.
“Oui madame. I have lived in the States for many years,” he responded while looking into his drink. “As a result, I fear I have lost my accent.”
Adrienne eyed him skeptically but decided he did very much embody a French nobleman despite having no accent. In this, at least, she would give him the benefit of the doubt.
“How long have you lived in New Orleans?” she asked.
“Long enough to lose my accent, chère” he replied and smiled. “And what do you do when you’re not looking like you leapt from the pages of a French classic?” he teased. “I deal in antiquities,” he quickly added as an afterthought, as if attempting to divulge a bit about himself so that she would do the same. But was it just her or was he evading her questions with more questions posed for her? This man was proving to be mysterious - and evasive - in many ways.
“I write – or rather, I attempt to write,” Adrienne gave a faint laugh.
“I am sure that what you would write would be well worth reading,” he replied as though he had already read her script.
Adrienne was about to laugh and retort that she would not be so sure, but the steady look in his blue gaze stopped her. He was so serious. The intensity of his penetrating gaze left little doubt as to his belief that what he said was fact. Embarrassed for some unknown reason, she looked down to gather her thoughts. This stranger was making her more self-aware than any man had in a long while. Despite the heat of the night and for reasons unbeknownst, she shivered.
Beneath the mask, he watched as the stain of a blush crept across her cheeks. He felt the shiver that ran through her body as if it ran through his own. She was lovely, utterly enchanting. Angelique could have paired him with any of her silly, vapid female acquaintances, but she had obviously known that this one was quite special. And Jean-Luc was anxious to learn more about her. It had yet to be revealed if she would be someone with whom he could share his deepest and darkest secrets - secrets derived from living many centuries as a vampire, created along the streets of Paris during the eighteenth century. He was ready for a new beginning of sorts. This one was no mindless female, but an astute, intelligent one beyond even her own awareness, and she very well could be the new beginning he sought.
Despite the shiver that ran through her, Adrienne nervously fanned her face with the dainty porcelain fan adorned with painted violets that had come with her rented costume. She lifted her glass of wine and nearly drained its contents as the man who had emerged from the shadows stood close and watched every move she made. She could feel the heat and warmth of the wine sensuously move through her to ease a bit of the nervousness she felt as he continued to peruse her much as he would a book. She knew she should be alarmed, but strangely enough, she was not. Instead, she was intrigued and wondered if the wine added to his allure. He was not the type of man she usually attracted, but there was no denying she was attracted to him. Moreover, she was interested in learning about what mysterious differences he embodied, and she instinctively knew he had stories to tell that could keep her interested for years.
“Are you all right? May I get you something? Perhaps another glass of wine?” he asked, smiling, and knowing exactly why she shivered as she did.
“No, I am fine, thank you,” she said. Was it her imagination or had he drawn even closer than only moments ago? His nearness was like a beacon of light that beckoned her toward something unknown. The draw was inexplicable, and she could not escape it.
“I just want to be sure you’re all right,” he said lightly placing his hand upon her forearm, his touch eerily cool in the heat of the warm night. Her response to his touch was instantaneous, moving through her like a voracious hunger. Without a doubt, she could tell that he felt it, too, so strong was the intensity reflected in his blue eyes.
Suddenly, she realized that he had done it again. How strange, but it seemed he could read her thoughts. She drew back ever so slightly and studied him.
“Am I so easy to read?” she asked quietly, eyeing him with curiosity and the faintest trace of a smile.
His left brow rose in seeming surprise. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he feigned ignorance at her question.
She reached up and touched his left temple ever so lightly, feeling the thickness of his hair beneath her slender fingers. His skin, like his touch, was decidedly cool despite the heat of the night and the heavy costume he wore. How the bloody hell did he manage to appear so cool, calm, and collected amidst all the revelry on this unusually warm night? Indeed, how did he manage to exude such confidence while also seeming to read her thoughts?
If Jean-Luc could have shivered, he would have done so at her touch. Instead, his eyes turned such a deep blue that they appeared black in response to both her touch and the question she posed. There was no denying the voracity created by her mere touch. Moreover, she was undeniably easy to read despite his ability as a vampire to ascertain her thoughts. It was as though he had known her all the years he had been on this earth.
“You seem to be able to pull my thoughts from my head and into that handsome head of yours. How is that so? Are you real or some figment appearing from the depths of darkness and my imagination?” Adrienne questioned, her voice a light, seductive whisper in the darkness.
Jean-Luc watched her closely, keenly aware of her nearness and intuitive nature. He was sorely tempted to make known to her what kind of creature of the night he was then and there, mayhap tossing caution aside tasting of the sweet nectar of her blood. Beyond a doubt, he was sure already of her blood’s sweetness without yet tasting of it. The temptation was undeniably strong, invading him with each second he stood before her.
Of a sudden, a voice interrupted their thoughts. “Oh, Adrienne, there you are. I have been looking everywhere for you, dear." Angelique’s Southern accent rippled across the small distance as she neared them. “But how wonderful! I see you have met Jean-Luc. You two look just as lovely together as I always knew you would.” And without further ado and a look of smug satisfaction, Angelique turned on her heel and disappeared once again into the crowded ballroom, not awaiting a reply from either party.
Stunned, Adrienne turned to look at Jean-Luc, who simply stared back at her with unabashed self-confidence in his crystal blue eyes. She could not help but think that he did not look the least bit surprised to learn of her identity.
“Jean-Luc?” she whispered. Could the world suddenly have aligned itself to come full circle, bringing this intriguing man to her? She was nearly afraid to think too much on the matter at hand or to admit how much she wanted him to be Jean-Luc.
He watched her as he reached to pluck a single golden marigold tinged with crimson red from a vase on a table on the veranda and offered it to Adrienne with an intensity in his blue eyes to which she was already becoming very accustomed. How appropriate and full of irony: the beautiful yellow of the flower was tinged with bright red as though someone had dipped it in fresh blood. Without a doubt, this flower was a foreshadowing of their predestined meeting. Jean-Luc’s lips formed an ironic smile as he watched the surprise flicker across Adrienne’s face. He handed her the flower.
“The night is young, my dear. Might I offer you this beautiful marigold?”