“Miss Parsons, can you type?”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Ryder. Do you need help with something?” Carol looked up at the man standing before her desk. He had only been in town a few months, but she knew his features very well. And for once, the gossip had been right – he was indeed the most handsome man she’d seen in a long time. He was usually calm and composed too, but tonight he looked annoyed.
“I need a secretary, Miss Parsons. You’ve probably heard that I’m writing a book about a recent trip I was on. I know how fast news travels in a small town like this.”
“Yes, I’ve heard, though I don’t pay too much attention to gossip,” Carol said. In fact, she had heard quite a lot about Jesse Ryder, the adventurer, since he had moved into the old Smith place. She felt she knew more about him than she did about some of the people whom she had known all her life. “Have you posted a notice anywhere, or put an ad over the local radio station?”
He nodded, his black hair falling over his forehead like a raven’s wing. He swept it back impatiently with one slim, white hand. He was, according to gossip, recuperating from injuries received on his trip, supposedly a dangerous adventure, and was still pale and thin. “The only response I’ve had so far is a Miss Olive West.”
“Have you interviewed her?” Carol watched his face closely
“I attempted to,” he replied, with a grimace. “She fits the educational and training requirements, but her personality is not suitable to me. Not that there’s anything wrong with her, “he added quickly, “but she is not what I’m looking for.”
Carol smiled warmly. “I know Olive well, Mr. Ryder.”
“Then you must know that she would not fit into a peaceful working atmosphere. Is she a friend of yours?”
“We went to school together, and you’re right,” she agreed. Olive was anything BUT peaceful. “But why me?”
“I’ve got a proposition for you. I know you only work part time here, so would you consider taking on the position as my secretary, also part time?” He paused, and Carol thought she saw a glimmer of hope in his dark eyes. “We can work out the hours most suitable for you, and I’m sure we can come to some financial agreement.”
“I thought you wanted a full-time secretary.” Her typing skills were self-taught and she never had envisioned herself as a secretary.
“That would be ideal, I admit, but it is much more important to me that I find someone I can work with, someone who will respect my desire for peace and quiet. Will you think it over?”
Her grey eyes sparkled. “I don’t have to. I’d love to do it, Mr. Ryder.”
“Wonderful! Can you stop by the house after work tonight, to discuss the details?”
“Of course. It’s on my way, anyway.”
“Then I’ll expect you in…” he consulted an expensive-looking wristwatch, “…one hour from now?”
Carol nodded her head and watched him leave. She hoped she wasn’t getting in over her head with this. She was not a fully qualified secretary, and certainly not an experienced one like Olive. As long as Mr. Ryder only wanted a typist, she should be able to handle it. At least she could give it a try and see what happened.
Jesse Ryder opened the door on Carol’s first knock and swung it wide open. “Please come in. my study is the first door on your right. Go on in and make yourself comfortable. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
She went into the room. It was adequately furnished, with an armchair, a leather sofa, several bookcases, and a work table and chair placed in front of the one window in the room. Across from the window was a desk with what looked to be a new computer. Carol sat down in the armchair. The walls were covered with paper, black scrollwork and climbing ivy on a grey background. Not bright, she thought, but kind of relaxing and restful. It should be a pleasant room to work in.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Ryder said, entering the room. “My notes from the trip,” he explained, laying a water-stained battered portfolio on the table. “They’re in bad condition, I fear, but I hope you will be able to read at least most of it. I’ll help you with anything that isn’t clean.”
“You want me to transcribe your notes, then?”
“That’s the first step,” he said, smiling. It was the first time she had seen him smile, really smile, and she was struck by the whiteness of his teeth. He’d be absolutely perfect for a toothpaste commercial, she thought.
“I’m still sorting and labeling photographs,” he continued. “If you could type those up, keeping each day’s notes separate. It’s a sort of a daily journal. When I’m finished with the photographs I’ll begin work on the book. I’ll work from the notes and fill in the details as I go along. My memories of this trip are very vivid.”
“May I ask where the trip was?”
“Of course. Up the Amazon River. It was a fascinating, and somewhat unusual, experience.” He handed her the journal. “I hope you won’t have any problems with my writing.”
She took the folder and glanced at it. His writing was neat and clear, except in the places where water had touched it. “Is that … were you injured on that trip?” She hoped he would not think she was prying, and added hastily, “I seem to recall hearing something about that.”
“Small town gossip. I’d forgotten just how thorough it can be. Yes, it is true.” He sat on the sofa, facing her, leaned back and closed his eyes. His face seemed to grow taut, filled with pain.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked that.” She felt she had caused him to remember unpleasant things, things which he would prefer not to talk about.
He seemed not to hear her. “I was injured very badly,” he said quietly. “I guess it was a miracle of sorts that I pulled through, though sometimes I wonder…” he sat up straight. “I should not bore you with personal tragedies, or get morbid. We should be discussing our working arrangements.”
“I’m free every morning,” she said, thinking there was a great deal of turmoil beneath the surface in this man. His book should be worth reading. She felt privileged to be able to read it while it was in the first stages, before it was in the hands of editors. She was glad that Olive had not been suitable to him. A soft, satisfied smile curved her lips as she listened to him outline her duties, but she was completely unaware of how it transformed her face. Or the way that smile affected Jesse Ryder.
By the time they had worked everything out and set up a schedule which suited them both, two hours had passed. Despite her protests that it was unnecessary, he insisted on seeing her home.
“It’s the least I can do after keeping you so long,” he said, ushering her out the door.
“Aren’t you afraid to be alone with him there at night?”
“For goodness sakes, Olive, why should I be afraid?” She had been working with Jesse for almost a month now, and the work was even more interesting than she had anticipated. “Mr. Ryder is my boss, nothing more, nothing less. We have a good working relationship.”
“But haven’t you heard the latest rumors?” Olive sat down on the edge of Carol’s desk, making herself at home.
“What rumors?” Carol narrowed her eyes suspiciously, knowing that Olive was about to relate some juicy tidbit of gossip. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, I’m only repeating what I heard, mind you, but they say that this man, this Mr. Ryder, doesn’t eat! No one has ever seen him eating out, or picking up groceries, nor even seen groceries being delivered to his house.”
“That doesn’t prove anything. He might shop in the city. He does go there fairly often, you know.”
“You’re making excuses for him,” Olive accused.
“No, I’m not, there’s no reason to, but he is recovering from injuries, which he told me were quite serious. Have you considered that he might shop at a health food store in the city, since we don’t have one here in town?”
Olive pouted a little. She was still a bit peeved that Ryder had chosen Carol over her as his secretary. And Carol hadn’t even applied for the job either. Ryder had asked her! “He could, I suppose,” she agreed reluctantly. “But what about those so-called injuries of his?”
“What do you mean, so-called injuries?”
“Have you seen any sign of injuries? Any scars? Hah!” she added triumphantly when Carol remained silent. “I didn’t think so. How do we know there really were any injuries? Have you seen him without his shirt?”
“Maybe he just doesn’t go around exposing his injuries – or his body – to strangers. Besides, I have no reason to mistrust or disbelieve him.” She was growing tired of this conversation. “As far as I’m concerned, Jesse Ryder is my employer, and a gentleman, and he’s never been anything but kind to me. I owe him my loyalty and respect and I refuse to gossip about him. So please spare me any more of your half-baked stories.”
Olive slid to her feet. “My, my! A bit touchy, aren’t you? But don’t say I didn’t warn you. It will be too late when he sinks his fangs into your neck one of these nights.”
Carol’s hand went unconsciously to her neck. “What on earth are you trying to say, Olive?”
“Thought you didn’t want to know?” Olive mocked. “Well, Miss prim-and-proper, they say this Ryder character is a vampire! They say he kills stray cats and dogs and drinks their blood. They say that…”
“They say, they say… Who are they?” Carol demanded.
Olive shrugged her shoulders and spread her hands. “They are … well, everyone. They say … okay, I’ve heard that people have seen him calling the cats in at night.” Her usually high-pitched voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Then he kills them and drinks the blood.”
“He could be feeding them.”
“Or they could be feeding him. Do you ever see any sign of cats when you’re there?” Carol shook her head. “Okay,” Olive continued, “if he was feeding them, don’t you think you’d see them hanging around the door in the mornings, waiting to be fed?”
“Maybe so, but all this proves nothing. We don’t really know that they’re there at night, do we?” Carol was reluctant to believe any of this. It was too incredible.
“You’re too close to him to see the truth, my dear girl. You let your feelings blind you to everything else.” Olive looked at her, blue-shadowed eyes narrowed. “Have you seen where he sleeps?”
“Of course not! I don’t go prowling around. I respect his privacy,” Carol said indignantly. “And I certainly don’t expect him to sleep in a coffin.”
“Do you see him in the mornings? Is he ever around when you’re there typing his book.?”
Carol shook her head. “He works at night and sleeps late, and before you go jumping to conclusions, that’s nothing strange. Lots of people work better at night.”
“You’re making excuses again. What do you do at night, when he’s there with you?”
“We go through what I typed that morning, making any necessary corrections or additions. His memory of the trip is very clear, and he is a perfectionist where his work is concerned.”
“And is that all?” Olive was persistent. “Nothing of a more … personal nature?”
“I really don’t see that it concerns you, or anyone else,” Carol said defensively, blushing. “That’s a personal matter, between Mr. Ryder and myself.”
“What are you keeping from me, Carol? There’s something going on between you two, isn’t there? Something you’re not telling me?”
“Isn’t it about time you went back to work, Olive? You’ve had rather a long coffee break, haven’t you?” Suddenly, Carol didn’t want to talk about this anymore.
“Very well,” Olive said. “If you choose to ignore what this man is, and what he’s going to do to you, it’s not my problem.” She left, hips swaying provocatively in her tight red skirt. “You’ll regret it,” she called back over her shoulder.
I doubt it, Carol thought, as she watched the other woman leave. Olive was still jealous, and Jesse Ryder was still very much a mystery man.
“What are you going to regret?”
Carol jumped and barely managed to suppress a squeal of fright. She turned to see Jesse standing near the end of her desk. She’d been so absorbed in her conversation with Olive that she hadn’t seen him come in. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were there.”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I came in just as Miss West was leaving and I slipped down the far aisle.” He grinned. “Not very polite, I know, but that woman grates on my nerves.”
Carol smothered a giggle. “Actually, quite a few people react to Olive that way. Did you need to see me for something?”
“I wanted to tell you that I’ll be out of town for a couple of days. You can enjoy your weekend and we’ll resume our regular schedule again on Monday. You’ve worked hard in the past couple of months. You deserve a break.”
“Very well, I’m sure I’ll find something to keep me occupied. Enjoy your trip,” Carol said.
“I’ll try, but the prospects aren’t good.” He smiled at the puzzled look on her face. “I’m going for research and medical reasons, both of which are not conducive to enjoyment. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I’ll see you on Monday evening.”
Carol watched him walk away. She enjoyed a good vampire story, or any other kind of horror story, as much as anyone, but she knew there was no truth in what Olive had told her. It was all fiction, going right back to Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula. But to call Jesse a vampire was ludicrous! People came up with such silly notions when they didn’t know the details of a person’s private life. She wondered if she should tell Jesse what people were saying.
On Saturday, Carol took some time out from shopping to have lunch. She was sitting in a booth at the far end of the café when she overheard a conversation from the next booth. Her back was towards them so they didn’t see her.
“Wonder how long it will be before he runs out of cats and begins attacking people?”
“I don’t know, but there’s no evidence of it so far.”
“Something should be done before it gets that far, don’t you think?”
“Well… what about Parsons? Do you think he’s feeding off her? I mean, she’s a nice person and I wouldn’t want to see anything bad happen to her.”
Carol placed money on the table to cover her lunch, then stood up and faced them. “I really don’t know where you get your information, and I don’t care,” she said evenly. “I can tell you that Mr. Ryder is a fair and generous employer, and a fine gentleman whom I consider to be a friend. I hope I never hear you talk about any of my friends in such a way again!” Then she turned abruptly and left.
“Do you believe the rumors?” Carol had just finished telling Jesse about the episode in the café. She felt he had a right to know what people were thinking and saying about him.
“No, I don’t,” she assured him.
His hands gripped her shoulders as he gazed deep into her eyes. “Are you sure you are not afraid to be here with me? Not even the slightest doubt?”
“Vampires are horrible, blood-sucking monsters. You, Jesse Ryder, are a perfect gentleman,” she said firmly and reached up to kiss him gently.
He met the kiss, gratefully accepting the love and trust she offered, yet wondering how long it could last. When he broke the kiss, he hugged her hard, and then released her. “Come and sit with me.” He led her over to the worn, leather sofa. “We need to talk.”
“Isn’t it a bit early for serious talk? We barely know each other, Jesse.”
“That’s precisely why we should talk. I have grown very fond of you, Carol, and there are things about me which you do not know – very important things.” This wasn’t easy for him and he had no idea what the outcome would be.
Carol drew a deep breath and looked at him, her expression serious. “Okay, I’ll listen, but only if you really want to tell me, not because you think you should – after the rumors, I mean.”
“I must tell you. These are things which I would not tell you if I did not think there was a possibility that we might become involved on a more personal level. You know that I sustained serious injuries on my trip up the Amazon.”
She nodded. “You told me that, and I’ll probably get the details as we get further into the book. You don’t have to tell me if it hurts to talk about it.”
Jesse appeared not to have heard her. He had a habit of doing that. “My book will not have the full details. It is not a story for the public. Truthfully, my injuries were fatal.”
“But…” She stopped. “Oh, I see. You mean they would have been fatal if you had not received adequate medical help in time.”
“No, I mean they were fatal. I was struck by a native’s poison-tipped dart, and badly cut up with a crude knife.”
“That’s impossible. How could they have been fatal if you’re alive?” Her soft grey eyes were wide. “Jesse, what are you trying to tell me?”
I feared this would happen,” he said a little sadly, and stood up. “I didn’t want to tell you yet, it is too soon, but the gossip leaves me no choice. Carol, what I’m going to tell you will be hard for you to believe. Hell, I still have trouble with it myself, and I’m the one it happened to.” He drew a deep breath.
“I am … was … the seventh son of a seventh son, which, as some legends go, means that I am … was … a prime candidate for becoming a vampire.”
“That’s ridiculous! Jesse, if you’re trying to get rid of me, trying to scare me, you’re doing a good job of it.”
“No, no, just the opposite.” He sat down beside her again. Cupping her chin gently with one hand, he turned her to face him. “That’s why I must tell you, so that you will understand. The poison dart, and the other injuries, did kill me. even without the poison, the natives’ medicine was too primitive to help. However, my status as a seventh son gave me the power, incredible as it sounds, to return as a … vampire.”
Carol shook her head. “No. There’s no such thing, not in real life. You are not some kind of monster.” She closed her eyes.
“I guess that all depends on one's definition of a monster. Still, what I have told you is the truth. I was fortunate that only a handful of natives witnessed the transformation, not a pretty sight I can assure you. They didn’t realize exactly what was happening. They thought I was some kind of God because they apparently couldn’t kill me. I am a vampire. Look at me, Carol,” he insisted gently.
She opened her eyes. “Oh my God! It’s true,” she breathed as she saw the sharp canine teeth he showed her for the first time.
“Yes,” he said.
“But you seem so normal. You … you kissed me,” she stammered.
He saw the confusion in her eyes and smiled faintly. “I’ve always enjoyed kissing a beautiful woman. In fact, I still enjoy most of the same things I always did.”
“Do you … do you sleep in a coffin?” she whispered.
“Most of the time, though there are exceptions.”
“What … what about food? Her voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper. “Is it true what they say about the cats?”
Jesse shook his head. “I do hunt animals from time to time, but not cats, or any other domestic animal, and not in my human form. Carol, I hope this will not affect our relationship.” He reached for her hands.
She shrank away from him. “If this is all true, you are not a man at all. You’re some kind of … thing. A creature from the grave.”
“I have never been in a grave,” he said quietly. “I know you need time to think about this, to come to grips with the reality of it all, but I promise you one thing: I am, and always have been, a man of my word. Any future relationship we have will be just what you want it to be.”
“You expect me to work with you, to continue our relationship, as if nothing had changed.” She jumped to her feet. “I can’t. It wouldn’t work. I have to get out of here.”
I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” he said quietly. “In your present state of mind, you’re too dangerous to me. You know too much. It will likely be necessary for me to leave town, to relocate again, but that’s a minor inconvenience I’ve learned to live with. I had hoped you might be different,” he added sadly.
“Jesse, I can’t be dangerous to you if you leave town. And I promise your secret is safe with me. All you have to do is let me walk out of here and we can both forget we ever met.” Her heart hammered wildly against her rib cage, but somehow she knew it wasn’t just fear.
“Surely you must realize how impossible that is. You would not be able to keep such a significant secret, nor forget me. Neither can I forget you.” His tone had softened and eyes flickered like flames dancing in the breeze. “You see, my dear Carol, we already have a bond.”
She raised her hand, gingerly toughing the place on her neck. Her eyes widened as realization dawned. Olive had been right – he had bitten her!
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” he said sadly. “I would never do that without total consent from my … partner. I thought we had a different bond, one of intellect and friendship, but perhaps I was wrong.”
“You can still let me go.” Her head was spinning and she wasn’t thinking clearly. “You owe me that much.”
His laugh was harsh. “I owe nothing to anyone! I am not governed by the laws of humanity anymore.” His gaze held hers, his eyes flickering like wildfire. “I cannot let you go like this. Come to me, Carol.”
She moved like a sleepwalker into his outstretched arms. A sigh of pure contentment escaped her lips as his mouth moved tenderly over her face. She wanted to be with him but she was still afraid.
With a heavy sigh, he released her. “You see how easily I could control you, but that is not what I want. I will not force you into anything, but I do not want you to leave here, thinking that I’m some terrible monster. I do not kill my … sources. Most of them are unaware of what has happened.” He pushed a white hand through his hair. “Perhaps I was wrong to tell you but I wanted honesty between us, especially if you are to continue helping me with the book.”
“Would you still want me to help you, even without …? She could not bring herself to say the words.
He smiled and spoke softly. “Yes, I still want you to work with me, because I want to finish the book, and because I enjoy your company.”
“Would you let me leave if I wanted to?” She searched his face for the honesty she must have. “Will you agree to a working relationship and friendship only?”
“If that is what you wish,” he agreed. “Any human relationship is comforting.” He held out his hand, smiling. “Friends?”
“Good friends,” she answered. “Can I ask you one thing?”
“Of course, anything?”
“How come your … sharp teeth aren’t always visible when you smile?”
“Most of the time I keep them retracted. You would not have seen them had I not chosen to show you.” He studied her in silence for a moment. “Friendship sometimes deepens into something more.”
“Perhaps. Time will tell.”
She did not sound repulsed by the idea, so he went a step further. “Last weekend, when I was away …“ He hesitated.
“You said it was for research and medical reasons. You don’t have to explain further,” she said.
“But I do,” he said, “just in case our friendship should become … Carol, there is a legend that the state of vampirism can be cured, but only for the seventh son.”
“That’s what you are researching,” she said. “Is there any way I can help?”
“I think I’ve found the cure,” he told her, “but it will take some time and may be quite painful. However, as the consequence is returning to a normal life, I am willing to go through it – IF I can find a doctor willing to help me.”
Carol looked at him thoughtfully, feeling emotions well up inside her. “We’ll do it together,” she said. If he was willing to put himself through great pain and who knew what else to become mortal again, then the least she could do was help him.
“You mean that,” he said. She nodded and smiled. “Okay, together,” he said. "But I must caution you not to get your hopes too high. It may not work."
© 1990, 2001 Fay Herridge
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