Sinners’ Opera by Linda Nightingale
Morgan D’Arcy is a classical pianist, an English lord and a vampire. He has everything except what he desires most—Isabeau. When she was a child, he appeared to her as the Angel Gabriel, influencing her life and career choice, preparing her to become Lady D’Arcy. Many forces oppose Morgan’s daring plan—not the least of which is Vampyre law. A vampire must not sire a child on a mortal.
Isabeau Gervase is a brilliant geneticist engaged to a prominent attorney. Though she no longer believes in angels, she sees a ticket to a Nobel Prize in the genetic puzzle presented by her long-absent childhood friend. She intends to unravel Gabriel’s secrets, using the DNA contained in a lock of his hair and identify the non-human species she named the Angel Genome.
Morgan is ready to come back into Isabeau’s life, but this time as a man—and a vampire—not an angel. Will he outsmart his enemies, protect his beloved and escape death himself? For the first time in eternity, the clock is ticking.
Chapter 1 – Sangreal
Charleston, South Carolina, May 29th
“Dear Lord,” a woman called to heaven, “such a young man. So near death. What could have happened to you?”
My body was one long, cold ache, but a hot center throbbed in my chest. Wet and shivering, I craved only sleep and the blackness that held me.
Sirens wailed to a crash of thunder. Somewhere, someone was in trouble.
I drifted on the ebb and flow of pain until the woman gave me a gentle shake. Forcing my eyes open, I blinked to focus on the indistinct shapes materializing from fog. Rainbow angels battled demons in a stained glass window. Marble statues leered at me from the shadows. An ornate crucifix cast its silhouette on the ebony saint bent over me. Her countenance was round and full, her nose broad. Pity glistened in her dark eyes.
“You’re awake.” A smile trembled on her lips. “Thank you, Jesus.”
She seemed to be in close communication with the man on the cross. My upper body rested on her lap, my legs stretched on a shiny wooden floor. Lush breasts cradled my head. Her red blouse smelled of fresh baked bread, the tiny pearl buttons mesmerizing.
“I do declare you had me worried; you been so still-like.”
Her thick dialect called to me from the past, but I didn’t know if it was yesterday or years ago. I don’t know who I am. I frowned, trying to remember. A trill of music scrolled through my mind. The woman gave a tentative smile. I started to smile back, but the scent of fear distracted me. My clothes reeked of fear.
Another fragrance—dusky red and delicious—sent a shiver through me. The rich aroma of her blood appealed to me on levels I didn’t understand. The sensation was raw hunger mingled with passion. Beyond the blood-scent, the musk of old wood and incense, the perfume of religion, summoned a vision of a blond boy in blue velvet and white lace kneeling at an altar. As I grasped at the memory, like a wave retreating from the shore, something important slipped away from me.
The woman’s admiring gaze drifted over my face. I wanted to touch her, tell her how much…how very much…I ached to kiss her black satin throat, but when I tried to lift my hand nothing happened. Terrified, I glanced at my hands. The bleached fingers were curled into dead claws. The hands once considered magic and beautiful were horrible.
Panic drew my knees toward my chest. “Oh, God, my hands can’t be paralyzed.”
The blow was physical, knocking the breath from me. If I’d been struck blind, even deaf, I could still play, but if my hands were paralyzed—I was lost. Music was my beloved mistress. My piano alone stood between madness and me.
My companion shook her head, refusing to meet my wild-eyed gaze. “Shush now, you going to be all right. Mother Superior’s gone to call for help.”
“Mother Superior?” Was I lying in a nun’s lap? I was in a church, and that seemed totally absurd for some reason, but I was too terrified to laugh. Crisp dark curls peeked from beneath a blue bandana, not a wimple. “You’re not a nun.”
She stiffened as if I’d offended her. “I come help the sisters out. I might be a nun some day.”
The woman’s expression softened. Lips pursed, she shook her head, dark eyes sad. Her pity mortified me. No one, since I’d been that boy in velvets and lace, had seen me cry. Swallowing tears, I squeezed my eyes closed. The other feelings she excited, I couldn’t deal with now. She stroked my cheek, and I remembered to breathe but refused to open my eyes. I couldn’t bear the sight or the scent of her.
An internal map—an anatomical image of flesh, muscles and veins—spread across my eyelids. Hours, days, years might have passed, but it was probably only a moment or two. Tingling needled my numb arms, swept into my fingertips, relaxing the ugly claws. Holding my breath, afraid to hope, I willed my right hand to lift, felt the sensation of movement and opened my eyes. The hand rose, hovered, flopped on my abdomen. Dried blood crusted a jagged hole in my black velvet coat. Fresh blood warmed the center of the wound.
Ah, another shade of the dusky red fragrance. My blood possessed a wild bouquet, almost feral, and completely different from the woman’s blood.
“See. Your hands is okay. You want a drink of water?” She rested a warm palm on my forehead, reached behind her with the other to produce a ruby and gold chalice. “You’re not feverish. Chilled more like. Try to drink a little, hon.”
Relief made me giddy. I smiled, imagining a geyser rushing from the hole below my chest. Mustn’t laugh or I’d never stop. To be sure, my situation was no laughing matter.
The water smelled mountain-spring fresh, and I was parched. When I placed my hands over hers, she inhaled, surprised how cold they were. I took a deep drink, the molten liquid searing my throat and bursting into flame in my stomach. Agony folded me over her arm. Bloody water spewed between my clenched teeth. She stroked my back while I retched, trying to vomit my guts on the church floor. At last, shuddering and weak, I collapsed in her lap.
“Poor angel.” She fished a paper towel from her pocket and wiped my mouth. “We found you on the river bank, legs in the water. When we pulled you out, we thought you was—” She trapped her lip between her teeth, biting off the last word.
Dead whispered in my mind as if I had heard her thoughts. I glanced at the man on the cross. What miracle is this?
“We was looking for a little girl. Her momma called and said she was coming this way. Lucky I was here. I’m strong. I helped them get you up to the church.”
The woman who’d rescued me struggled for words of comfort. None came. Her gaze shifted. We both watched her fingers untangling blood-matted blond hair stuck to my jacket. As she worked, she hummed the hymn, Just As I Am.
“You’re very kind.” I brushed my fingers to her hand.
Her gaze lifted to mine, a wistful smile on her lips. “Are you English?”
“I think I am.” I frowned at the effort to remember. “Yes.”
“You talk like it.” As gently as a mother with a child, she stroked the hair back from my forehead. “Do you hurt bad?”
I shook my head. The pain had lessened with each heartbeat. No longer warm and wet, the wound tingled, and I’d seen it healing. Was I delirious?
“Talk to me some more if it don’t hurt. I do just love an English accent. I used to dream of going off to England, meet a handsome man, you know.”
Dreams misted the dark eyes drifting over my face. Her memories came to me clear as images on a movie screen. She thought I resembled a British musician in the rock band she’d been watching on television the day the lawyer delivered adoption papers. That sinful day Mary Jones had cast her illegitimate son away, like little Moses, on a river of legal documents. She considered taking vows to atone for that sin.
My heart segued to the rhythmic throb of her pulse. I was too sick to question why I could hear her thoughts and simply closed my eyes to listen. In the limbo between wakefulness and sleep, the sorrow in her soul lapped at me. I wished somehow I could ease her pain.
Razor-sharp memory sliced through me, jerking me upright. “‘od’s teeth!”
Before the fall, I’d been shot.
Rapid-fire images snapped before my eyes. I saw my Jag plunging over the guardrail at the top of the Cooper River Bridge. Now, in the silence of a church, I felt the wind whistling past my face as the force of the fall sucked the breath from my lungs and tried to pluck me from the convertible. Irrationally, I’d clung to the wheel while my beloved roadster sank, in a slow rocking ballet, to the river bottom.
During that interminable swift plunge, I hadn’t been afraid of dying.
Mary touched my arm. “Be still, hon, or you’re gonna start bleeding again.”
I was in no danger of bleeding to death or dying from any natural cause. I knew why I’d heard her thoughts, why the aroma of her blood bedeviled me. I knew who and what I am.
The blood staining her blouse was a miracle drug that could cure the most grievous of human diseases—and secure eternity for a predator. The wound that would have been fatal to a mortal had almost healed. Within hours after the ritual blood exchange, a fragile yet potent virus had mutated my DNA. I’d never actually died; would never feel death’s cold hands. The Vampyre Effect was a transformation from one species to another. All so long ago. For almost four centuries, I had been a vampire.
The woman leaned over me. I heard the blood whispering in her veins, saw the jugular bulging with each strong heartbeat. Even the scent of my own blood fed the craving. Hunger wrenched my stomach, the need for blood shuddering over me in flashes of heat. The pain twisting inside me was a living thing—ugly, urgent, older than the world. In a vain attempt at control, I ground my teeth until my jaw ached. My hands clenched into fists, the tendons bunched like steel bands beneath the skin. I was losing it, my eyes turning red.
“Run, Mary,” I panted, shoving her. “For God’s sake, run.”
Her hands branded my shoulders. Need coursed through me.
Her brow puckered. “How did you know my name?”
“You look like a Mary,” I gasped, trying to crawl away. “Bloody hell, run, woman.”
Saliva broke beneath my tongue. My heart thundered like a cavalry charge. Fever stung my veins. Instinct twisted me around to face my salvation and my damnation. My lips parted to reveal the one unmistakable characteristic of my kind.
“Fangs,” Mary breathed, clutching her cross. “Lord Jesus, save me. You’re a demon.”
I knelt in front of my savior, bowed my head over her heaving breasts to touch the cross to my lips. “Too late to run, too late to hide, and Mary dearest, your cross won’t save you.”
I held her gaze, a slow smile parting my lips. Her eyes clouded, jaw slackening. Too weak to command my more esoteric powers, I could still mesmerize my prey. It was just too bloody easy. Vampires are the perfect predators. But I had a choice. Didn’t I?
“What’s your name?” She inhaled a long, slow breath, toying with my hair. “You’re as beautiful as an angel.”
Another wave of misery broke over me. She wasn’t the only one who thought I looked like an angel. Once, the woman I love—the woman who didn’t love me—believed I was an angel.
“My name is Morgan.” I couldn’t bring myself to say my second name, an angel’s name.
Mary ran her finger down my cheek. “Pretty name, Morgan.”
So simply, the seductive dance that would end in death began.
The pulse beneath her jaw and her breathing quickened. I was starved for living blood. Moth to flame, I bent over her, sucked her soft, dark skin into my mouth, teasing anticipation. My tongue traced the thudding artery. Mary whispered my name, and a tremor of desire shook me. I straightened, ripping her blouse from neck to waist. Pearl buttons popped from the soft cotton material, danced on the floor. Mary didn’t cry out. She slow-blinked, her gaze fixed by my red eyes.
“I’ve been bad.” She stroked my shoulders. “Sold my body to men. Had to.”
“One does what one must to survive.” I wisped my tongue over her lips.
Her mouth opened for my kiss, and, trembling, she melted into my embrace.
Instinct was too strong, my need too urgent to indulge in a subtle seduction. In shades of crimson I saw her, a vessel brimming with life. I crushed her to my quaking body, a groan of desperation escaping me. My fangs glided into the right carotid artery. Blood, like sanctified wine, spilled into my mouth. Locking her arms around my neck, she welded my lips to her throat. I sucked hard, bruising her flesh. She moaned, grinding her breasts on my chest.
Mary wanted a man, not these cold dead saints. Or my cold, deadly lips.
I would have killed her then and there, but a chill seeped through me. In my mind, images formed. A nun hurried down a brick path shadowed by water oaks. Her black robes billowed in the rising storm. Like grave shrouds, Spanish moss fluttered in the wind. Thunder rattled the stained glass windows, and sirens shrieked closer.
Deep in bloodlust, I cursed, “‘od’s teeth, not now.”
Hinges creaked. I tore free of Mary’s embrace, scrambling to my feet. The door opened on a frigid blast. A hand climbed my leg. My victim whispered, “Morgan,” but it was all meaningless. Danger breathed down my neck. The Mother Superior’s back was turned. A switch clicked. My hands shot up to shield my eyes from the stab of bright light.
The woman’s voice rasped rusty and old. “Bad accident. Some fool drove off the Cooper River Bridge. Finally got through to the EMS.”
The mother superior turned. “Dear merciful God.” She clutched the pain knifing her chest and staggered back, fumbling behind her for the latch. “What are you?”
Horror blanched the color from her face. What a grisly sight I must be! Blood and mud caked my clothes, leaves and refuse tangled my hair. I felt like the supreme evil. Evil with a tear in his eye. I licked the blood from my lips and offered the nun a fanged smile.
The irony of it struck me, funny actually, but very sad. The victim of that accident at the bridge had drifted downstream to wash up at the mercy of The Church. The sirens screamed for me. Mary’s blood, spiced with lust, moved hot in my body, sharpening perception. I could read the old woman as easily as I might read a book. Cancer ate at her lungs, but the grief gnawing at her faith would claim her life before the disease ran its fatal course. I felt sorry for her, but the Hunger had no friends, knew no compassion.
The old nun squared her shoulders in a show of courage, but the acidic odor of terror betrayed her. “The police are on their way. You’ll never get away with this.”
“Indeed.” I was loath to hurt her, but I’d no choice. Injured, bled dry, I required blood to heal. A priest offering benediction, I spread my arms in invitation. “Mother, give me your pain.”
Elizabeth Berry, Mother Superior, clasped the loose scarf of flesh beneath her chin in a futile attempt to stifle a cry. She limped toward the altar. Her legs gave way beneath her bulk, and on a sharp crack, she collapsed to her knees.
“Oh, Johnny.” Rocking to and fro, she keened, “How could God be so cruel?”
Would that I could free her from the spell I’d cast, but her misery was my ticket to freedom. Little Liz hadn’t actually seen her brother drown so I supplied detail from my experience in the Cooper River to drag her deeper into memory. As if a ghost struck the old pipe organ, thunder boomed a long, rolling chord. I turned to tonight’s first victim. To kill her, I must no longer think of her as Mary, merely as prey.
She’d roused from her swoon. Dark eyes watched me. Her tongue glided along her lower lip, and fire seared through me. Her ample breasts rose and fell in a hypnotic rhythm. I smelled the musk of desire. My savior wouldn’t have made a good nun.
I smiled, concealing my fangs. “And so you shall hold me.”
Vampire-quick, I drifted down beside her. The woman wound her body around me in an embrace of legs and arms. Her mouth devoured mine, her tongue plunging between my lips. She didn’t flinch as my teeth lacerated her tongue. Vertebrae by vertebrae, she relaxed. It was a holy experience—the sweetest water to a man dying of thirst. I drank her beauty to the end, and when it was done, I was whole. At last, Mary was free, without having to utter those black-and-white promises.
The fierce electricity of the kill shocked me to my feet. Power vibrated every cell in my body. The texture of light and darkness I felt in shimmers—the light translucent, weightless; the dark opaque, soothing. The howling wind, volleys of rain, even the hellish wail of sirens were a symphony. And the lingering taste of blood was nectar.
I glanced at my watch. My sojourn in the river and recuperation had been short. Ninety minutes give or take. Immortality, isn’t it grand? That remained to be seen. Eternity was now a game of chance. Health and powers restored, I faced an uncertain fate. Alone. Tonight, in Charleston—indeed, nowhere in the world—would I find a friend. Tomorrow, who’d find me first? The police or the vampire who loved me yet was duty-bound to destroy me?
Mother Superior wept. Mary slept at my feet. I met remorse and sorrow in their most immaculate forms. In the name of love, I’d dared to break all the rules. In the name of love, I’d thought to shed my nature like a worn cloak. In the name of love, I’d lost everything, even my own identity. Regrets were immaterial now. Before dawn, there’d be plenty of time to mourn. Behind me, my savior awaited her funeral pyre.
I bent to sign the cross over Mary’s forehead and sank into trance to collect the power. Fire and ice resonated the core of my being. Blue sparks crackled in the white aura surrounding me now. It was pleasure; it was pain. It was necessary.
“Go to your God, Mary.” I focused white-hot, blue-cold wildfire on an empty shell.
The body glowed, ignited in a blinding flash. The searing light faded. No trace of the sweet sorrow named Mary Jones remained. The buzz of voices on a police radio warned me that time had run out. I hurried to the old woman, reeling on her knees and weeping for her long dead brother.
“I’m sorry.” I stroked her trembling shoulders, but the Mother Superior ignored my apology as I must ignore her pain. “Mary ran away. Forget the man you fished from the river. He was never in your church.” I used the voice of command. “Release the pain. Sleep, Mother.”
Tears flowed in the deep wrinkles carved in her face. She swayed and collapsed. I caught her, easing her to rest at the altar. In the parking lot, car doors slammed. Charleston’s finest were on my heels. I fled down a dark hall, found a side door at the back of the church and burst into the fury of the storm.
Swift and silent, I skimmed over the brick path. Beneath the canopy of oaks, stone angels guarded mausoleums. In the shadow of an ornate tomb, I sank down on the wet bench and buried my face in my hands. Mustn’t allow the police to catch me, of course, but I’d hear them long before they were close. The wind still howled. Yet here it was quiet as if the storm respected the dead. Ghostly light wisped behind the trees—the headlights of passing cars—another world and I was trapped outside.
The shimmer of a presence roused me. My hands dropped to my sides. The ghost of a child watched me from hollow eye sockets. A shudder rolled over me.
The girl’s voice lilted, melodic. “Mister, you all right?”
Indeed, I’d allowed imagination to run away with me. I laughed, swept wet hair back from my face and lied. “Yes, thank you.”
A refugee from Les Miserables peered at me with the strangest, most beautiful eyes—gray with black flecks. Her hair, straight, thick and pale as mine, flowed over thin shoulders past her hips. She took a tentative step closer, and I saw that her legs were horribly twisted, a birth defect. Failure haunted me, and resentment burned in my heart. I could help end such needless suffering. With my DNA, Isabeau would save the unborn from this misery. I swallowed hard, tears stinging my eyes. If not for Vampyre law and my own mistakes, tonight Isabeau would be my wife and the mother of my child. Instead, she would go on without me—and I would…I didn’t know what I would do.
“That looks like blood on your coat.” The girl wiped her nose on her hand. “It’s dark. What’re you doing alone in the graveyard? Did somebody you love die?”
My throat closed, my heart cramping. “Not exactly.”
“You’re either dead or you’re not.” The ghost-like urchin, shivering in a thin, torn jacket, was a mere ten years old.
“That’s not exactly true either.” I kicked an acorn with my toe.
She inched closer, her eyes wary. “You talk funny. Where you from? Like music, kind of going up and down.”
“What are you doing here alone at night? Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?”
Her face was young but too wise. “Momma says the dead can’t hurt you. It’s the living you got to worry about.”
“Your mother is a wise woman.” I studied rain-jeweled trees, the rain-slick path.
The girl shrugged a shoulder. “If she was all that smart, she’d get rid of Tommy.”
I wished I had time to continue this conversation. “That’s why you ran away?”
“Yep. Sick of kids laughing at me. Tired of being hungry. I’m going to ask the sisters to take me in. I can work.” She tilted her face to the misty sky, raindrops sparkling on her lashes and her hair. “I always thought I’d be a great lady someday, you know?”
“A great lady?” My voice sounded as hollow as the stone angel weeping over the tomb.
She flung her arms wide. “I’d marry a prince or a rich duke.”
I tried to smile but failed. “Prince Charming isn’t likely to find you in a nunnery.”
This little girl was my chance to play the angel once more. Last night, I’d withdrawn ten thousand dollars from an account in the Grand Caymans as a safety net for my tightrope act. There was scant chance the authorities had thought to freeze or could even find my holdings and I had plastic by the number. I fished in the chest pocket of my coat. My wallet was still there, bulging with wet thousand dollar bills.
“Are you a bum?” She cocked her head, one eyebrow arched.
“Do I look like a bum?” I’d dreamed of changing the world. How the Mighty fall.
“Well, yeah.” She stressed the last word.
A bitter laugh burned my throat. “Hold on to your dreams. Dreams do come true.” My hand shook, and I almost dropped the wallet engraved with my initials and the St. Averil crest—worthless reminders of a life left behind.
“Come closer. I won’t harm you. I promise.” I folded the sodden currency and shoved it into her hand.
She gasped. “Is this real money?” Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, my, it is. A lot of money.” An accusing gaze captured mine. “Did you rob a bank?”
“The money is mine. Now it’s yours.” Thinking of a special little girl I’d taught to dream, I smiled wistfully. “I must warn you. Princes are in short supply.”
“You are an angel,” she whispered reverently. “Grandma said angels didn’t always look like angels when they appeared to you.”
A sharp pain lanced my heart. “I’m not an angel, child. Run along home before you catch a chill.”
And I used energy I couldn’t afford to expend to disappear and reappear behind a mausoleum ten feet away, still smelling of rotting flesh. Past new headstones, I fled, gliding around the shadowed turn. The path twisted left, the bricks chipped and broken. The old cemetery dated to the birth of the colony—a time I’d well enjoyed. Here, there were no faded silk flowers. The loved ones who’d tended these graves were moldering in other graves. I stopped at a raised tomb, wiped the inscription with my sleeve.
Samuel Rutledge, a soldier of the South.
“Samuel, old man, I shall be honored to accept your hospitality this bleak evening.”
I eased the lid of the crypt back. The stench of aged death assaulted me, but I’d run out of luck and choices, so I climbed into dusty but dry darkness. I settled the stone in place, extinguishing the fury of the night. The static of lightning capered along taut nerves. Thunder sounded the final chords of my requiem, but I was safe from the storm raging outside. A different storm raged inside the tomb I shared with Samuel. Eventually, one must pay the piper. Tonight, I’d paid handsomely for a very short dance.
“Move your elbow, Sam,” I told my musty bedfellow. “You’re poking my ribs. By the way,” my voice caught, “it’s my birthday.”
As the night crawled by, I explained to Sam how I’d lost the only woman I’d ever loved. I whispered of my purpose and my vision of siring an immortal child on my mortal bride. I told him about the idyllic time I’d spent with Isabeau.
After all, the dead tell no tales.
Heat warned that, at last, the sun crept over the horizon. Sleep and a dream claimed me. A ghost unseen, I hovered behind Isabeau. She stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. The light of a single candle flickered over her beautiful, naked body. In her hand was a red rose. On a black granite vanity, burgundy wine shimmered in a fragile blown-glass goblet. Eyes closed, she swayed gracefully to The Moonlight Sonata. My beloved was listening to my music!
Dry sobs wracked her slender form. Isabeau squeezed the rose tighter. Blood leaked between her fingers, red rivulets oozing down her arm. She opened her hand, stared at the blood, then raked the brutal thorns into her wrist.
I screamed, “Isabeau,” but there was no sound.
Like the dead, at sunrise, the undead tell no tales.
Thus, dawned the first day of a future without Isabeau.
For almost four hundred years, I’ve witnessed miracles of technology and the political wars that reshaped the world’s destiny. I’ve seen much to hate and a great deal worthy of forgiveness. I was born May 29, 1632, the only son of the Earl of St. Averil and his Lady Ilsabeth de Gueraint D’Arcy. He died at the Battle of Naseby fighting with Charles I. My mother died alone in 1685. By that time, an unnaturally long youth had forced me to fake my own death for the first time. I watched from afar, unable to attend her funeral.
Yesterday, I was a celebrated pianist. I learned my art on the harpsichord from an Austrian genius named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Later, I studied with Liszt, Ravel and Debussy. From the Duke of Newcastle then the Frenchman de la Gueriniere, I learned classical horsemanship.
Tonight, I am a wanted man. Mortal justice would hang me for a crime I did not commit. My brethren wish to destroy me for a crime I committed with willful intent.
It all began in December, a brief six months ago. Actually, my saga began in 1659 before the restoration of Charles II, but that’s another story…
This is our story—Isabeau’s and mine—our Folie à deux.
I am a gypsy. Actually not quite so exotic or romantic having been born and raised in a smallish town in South Carolina. I have lived in several cities in the US and in Canada and England. I’ve seen quite a lot of this country from the window of a Dodge pickup towing a horse trailer. I was a legal assistant but have retired to write full-time. I now live in the big state of Texas and have 2 wonderful sons. My passions are horses, writing (of course), reading, travel and music (I’m a member of the Houston Symphony League).
Web Site: http://www.lindanightingale.com
YouTube Link to Book Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwsE3PvjFTk
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