She got lost. Hopelessly, frighteningly lost. Lord, but she'd never realized how large this castle was, or how its corridors writhed about upon themselves like serpents in ecstasy. And so few windows!
She no longer had any sense, even of what floor she might be wandering. Her only means of navigation was to try to go toward lighter areas, and away from the darker ones. But even this plan had its flaws, for she could only go so far before the light began to fade. Her choice then became, walk into the darkness or go back to where she'd already been. And going back would serve no purpose. She made many discoveries that day. Some pleasant ones, but mostly unpleasant in the extreme. She discovered how thirsty she could become in a single day. How gruesome it was to walk face first into a sticky spider's web in the dark. How much she valued a good breakfast when one was unavailable.
Some of the more pleasant discoveries diverted her from her misery for short spans of time. She spent hours exploring rooms full of fascinating antiques, and when she was tired, took a nap on a satin chaise fit for a queen. Later, she stumbled upon the music room, where a harpsichord rested, dusty and old. The soft cushioned window seats built into the stone wall.
She sat on one to rest, and caught her breath as she gazed out over what surely must be all of Ireland. She was up so high. She'd been up and down so many stairways that she'd lost track, and truly had no clue where she'd ended. Now she knew, though the knowledge did her little good, except to tell her she ought to be going down. And down some more. And doing it soon, for from this vantage point she could see that the sun now rested on the very edge of the horizon, and would soon sink out of sight. She must have napped longer than she realized.
She lingered there only a short time. She might have stayed longer, despite the late hour, but she made the mistake of leaning over the old instrument, her fingers just lightly caressing the keys. And it let out a belch of sound that nearly stopped her heart. After that she had to be out of the room.
Ridiculous, the feeling that pervaded her senses then, but no use denying it.
She had the distinct sense that she must get out before Donovan learned she was here. And that blast from the harpsichord might have given her away, even told him exactly where she was, had he heard it.
She ran from the room, back into the snake pit of corridors, and took the first set of stairs she found that led downward.
Only they led into darkness. Or perhaps it was that night was falling now.
She kept going down, and the stairs twisted, circling and spiraling, lower and lower. She kept one hand pressed to the walls on either side to keep from falling as she continued endlessly downward.
And yet there seemed no end. She began to feel stifled, constricted by the walls at her sides, and even imagined them narrowing. Tightening. Squeezing in on her as if she'd been dropped into a funnel.
The stone step beneath her foot crumbled, and she drew back quickly, listening as the bits of it clattered and echoed into the darkness.
She could no longer see at all. And that might have meant full night had fallen, or perhaps it was only that no light could penetrate this narrow spiraling staircase, all encased in stone. "Enough," she muttered.
"I'm going' back."
And she turned, but her foot slipped, as a still larger chunk of the stone step fell away. It bounded down, crashing like the feet of a giant. And then there was another sound. Soft at first, light. Like the gentle beat of wings and a timid cry. And then louder.
The air above her filled with rapidly beating wings and piercing shrieks as the bats that falling stone had startled awake swarmed above and around her.
Blind beasts! Her scream joined their unearthly voices as she flailed her arms, but they battered her, colliding with her one after another, only to bound off in another direction. She felt them hitting her. Their small, furry bodies wriggling, and those rubbery wings pumping madly. Tiny clawed feet, scraping her face and moving on. Wetness--God alone knew what that was.
She screamed and beat at them, turning in circles and covering her face with her arms.
And then she tumbled.
Head over heels, her body hurtled down the staircase, bounding up and crashing down onto the uneven stone again and again. Smashing against the curving wall, only to rebound from it and follow the downward spiral. No bats now. She'd fallen past them and their mad flight.
And for a single moment she thought the fall would be endless.
She came to a stop some seconds before she realized it. Her head still spun and her body screamed in pain from a hundred bruises, each one throbbing as if it were being beaten anew. But gradually, the sense of motion faded, and she realized she was still. She lay on her side, more or less, though her limbs were twisted and bent in unnatural angles.
Slowly, she pulled herself upright, into a sitting position. Every movement hurt. Every spot on her body cried out in protest at her cruelty in moving it at all. But gradually, she did, getting her arms and legs into a more natural state, checking them to be sure they still functioned properly.
Nothing seemed to be broken. At least, she could move everything.
God, but it hurt!
Slowly, inch by inch, her hands on the wall nearest her, she pulled herself to her feet. Her trouble, she realized, had not ended simply because her fall had. She still needed to find her way out of this castle. For the first time it occurred to her that she might be trapped here indefinitely.
She could starve, or die of thirst before anyone found her.
And somehow the thought didn't frighten her as much as the thought of being found. But that was foolish.
The stairs had ended, and she was now on a level floor, more or less, though there were chips and breaks in the stone that made walking precarious at best. Still, she made her way forward, wishing for nothing so much as a candle to see by. The lighter.
She quickly dipped into her pocket and praised her lucky stars, it was still there. She lit it, held it out in front of her, and saw that she was in a long, wide corridor of stone and utter darkness--very much like a cave. But in the distance, doors stood, silent and closed. Perhaps one would lead to. to somewhere.
Her footsteps echoed--unevenly, since she was limping now--as she made her way down the hall, and paused before the first doorway.
Pushing it open, she found only an empty room. So she moved on to the second. And of course, an empty room greeted her there, as well. Only one door remained. Her heart in her throat, tears of frustration beginning to burn in her eyes, she touched the handle. Locked.
A sob welled up to choke off her breath, and she lowered her head to the wood to cry.
But then there was a sound. A soft creaking sound. a sound that came from beyond that door.
Like another door of some kind, opening. slowly opening. Straining to hear, she pressed closer, listening with everything in her. Gentle taps upon the floor. Someone moving around. Then a flare of light from beneath, one that grew brighter.
The steps came closer. And something. something made her back away.
The door opened with a deep, forbidding moan of protest. She looked into the eyes of Donovan O'Roark, saw them widen with shock and something that might have been fear--perhaps even panic. And then she managed to tear her gaze from his to look past him into the room, where candles glowed now. There was nothing there. nothing except a large, gleaming coffin, its lid standing open, its satin lining aglow in the candlelight.
Black and red, the satin inside that box. Black and red like the satin in which she'd slept.
She backed away.
He reached for her.
She whirled, the lighter falling from her hands, and then she ran.
"Rachel! Rachel, wait!"
Panic bubbled in her chest, larger and larger, expanding until she felt the bubble would burst and she'd die, right there, from the force of the fear that possessed her. She fled, headlong, having no idea where she was going, what she would do.
But she knew he pursued her. She knew he'd catch her soon, and Lord help her, what would she do then? What?
The hallway ended. Abruptly, and without a hint of warning in the pitch blackness. She heard Donovan's voice shout a warning--one she ignored--and then she felt the solid, skin-razing wall of stone stopping her heedless flight with a single blow. Her head, her body, the impact rocked her to the teeth and to the bone. But the head was the worst, and she felt the warmth of blood running from the wound and stinging her eyes as she sank slowly to the floor. "My God, Rachel..."
He was upon her like a wolf on an injured lamb, and she knew she no longer had a chance. She'd die here in this dungeon or whatever it was. She'd die here, bloodless and- pale, and the vampire would have his vengeance on the females of the Sullivan clan at last. He knelt beside her, gathering her into his arms and leaning over her. She felt his breath on her face. His fingers, probing the pulsing wound on her forehead.
"Damn fool woman, you could have got yourself killed!"
As if he wasn't planning to finish that job himself, she thought, groggy now, fading fast.
He got to his feet and carried her back down the hall, through one of the other doors, where she'd seen nothing, and right up to the wall.
She tried weakly to leap from his embrace, which likely would have resulted in cracking her head again, this time on the floor, but his arms tightened around her.
"Be still, Rachel."
"Let me go... let me go..." She twisted, pulled against him, but his arms were like steel. He paused there beside the wall, lifted one hand, holding her captive quite easily with the other. He touched something and the wall moved, backing away and leaving a two-foot gap on either side. Donovan carried her through that gap, and she caught her breath as the wall closed off again. He moved left, up a single flight of stairs, these ones broad and solid, rather than narrow and crumbling like the ones where she'd fallen.
Then he touched another wall, this one at the top of the staircase, and it opened like a door.
He stepped out, and lowered her down onto a soft set tee and then he turned to a wall, and did something. Moments later a soft light suffused the room from above, growing brighter until the place was perfectly well lit.
The light above her was, she realized, the gas-powered chandelier.
And the room around her was the great hall.
"So close...! was ... so very close..."
"To what, Rachel? To escape?"
She closed her eyes, touched her throbbing head. He ignored her for the moment, intent on lighting first one fire and then the other as she lay there. She felt the heat, saw the light.
"If it was escape you wanted, why didn't you leave by the back door when you awoke this morning? Why did you insist on doing the one thing I asked you not to do?"
He turned to face her, she saw as she peered at him, but the sight of the flames in the fireplace, reflected in his dark hair and deep blue eyes, only made her head hurt more, so she quickly closed her eyes once again.
"I wasn't snooping. I... the back stairs looked unsafe. I was only tryin' to find a saner way to leave this ruin."
He was closer now. Right beside her.
"You're lying," he whispered.
"No" -- He gripped her shoulders, lifting her slightly, and readying, she thought, to do her in. But his hands closed on bruised flesh, and she winced in agony.
Donovan went utterly still. Then, frowning, he pushed her hair aside, eyeing her face, her neck.
"My God, you're more injured than I realized."
That he was choosing to ignore the fact that she'd all but seen him rise from a coffin would have been amusing, if she hadn't been so certain her death was imminent.
"I fell," she told him.
"Down a long flight of stairs... the bats frightened me, and I lost my footing..."
She bit her lip as the memory of it came up to choke off her words.
Sighing deeply, he gripped her shirt at its hem, and without even asking her consent, he tugged it over her head. Then he touched her, with his eyes as well as his hands, examining the bruises and scrapes she'd suffered.
"I'm all right," she told him.
"Nothing's broken." He nodded as if in agreement, but took a handkerchief, spotlessly white, from a pocket and pressed it to her wounded head.
"I'll find some ice for this."
"I don't want ice. I just want to leave. Please..." He shook his head slowly.
"Why? I thought you wanted to know all my secrets."
She clamped her mouth closed, swallowing hard. His gaze moved, heating as it did, over her body. She felt naked, wearing no more than a bra and skirt.
And the look in his eyes made her feel even more vulnerable and exposed.
"I've changed my mind. I'll find some other subject to write about. I just... just want to leave this place."
"And me, isn't that right, Rachel? Because you've discovered the monster of your nightmares. The demon of your childhood. The legend you refused to believe.
All true, all real. All alive . in me. "
She met his eyes.
"It's true, isn't it?"
"What do you think?"
She only shook her head.
"I never believed you were evil. Tell me I wasn't wrong."
He said nothing, just stared at her.
"Don't kill me," she whispered.
"I swear, I'll never tell a soul."
His smile was slow, and almost sad.
"I'm not going to kill you, Rachel. And I already know you won't tell my secret." She blinked, hope washing over her like a flood of warmth and sunlight.
"You can trust me. I swear it, Donovan" -- "No," he said.
"I can't trust you. That's why you're going to have to stay here."
Her brows rose high, eyes widening.
"Stay here? But ... but..." She didn't understand, couldn't comprehend.
"For how long?" He said nothing, but she could see his meaning in his eyes, could hear his deep voice tingle up her spine even though he never spoke the word.
She heard it, in her soul.