by Teresa Medeiros
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She'd long ago learned to ignore her seventeen-year-old sister's rioting imagination and penchant for drama. She couldn't afford to abandon her responsibilities every time Portia spotted a werewolf sniffing around the trash heap or fell back upon the sofa in a semiswoon and announced that she was coming down with the Black Plague.
"You must write Aunt Marietta immediately and insist that she send Vivienne home to us before it's too late. We're her only hope, Caro!"
Caroline glanced up from the column of numbers, surprised to find her baby sister looking genuinely distressed. Portia stood in the middle of the dusty parlor, clutching a letter in one trembling hand. Her dark blue eyes looked stricken and her normally rosy cheeks were as pale as if some cloaked fiend had already sucked all the blood from her tender young heart.
"What on earth are you going on about now?" Her concern growing, Caroline laid aside her pen and slipped off the stool. She'd been hunched over the writing desk for nearly three hours, struggling to find some creative way to subtract the monthly expenses from their household accounts without making the final tally add up to less than zero. Shrugging the tension from her shoulders, she pried the letter from her sister's hand. "Surely it can't be as grim as all that. Let me have a look."
Caroline immediately recognized their middle sister's flowery scrawl. Brushing a pesky strand of pale blond hair from her eyes, she quickly scanned the letter, skipping over the endless descriptions of tulle-draped ball gowns and sprightly curricle rides down Rotten Row in Hyde Park. It didn't take her long to hone in on the passage that had drained all the color from Portia's face.
"My my," she murmured, arching one eyebrow. "After only a month in London it appears our Vivienne has already acquired a suitor."
Caroline refused to recognize the familiar pang in her heart as envy. When their aunt Marietta had offered to sponsor Vivienne's debut, it had never occurred to Caroline to point out that her own Season had been indefinitely postponed when their parents had perished in a carriage accident on the very eve of her introduction to court. And Caroline had soundly dismissed those same pangs when Vivienne departed for London with a trunk packed with all of the beautiful things their mother had chosen for her own postponed debut. It was a waste of valuable time to mourn a past that could never be changed, a dream that could never be realized. Besides, at four-and-twenty, Caroline was now so firmly entrenched on the shelf that it would take an earthquake to dislodge her.
"A suitor? Amonster, you mean!" Portia peered over Caroline's shoulder, one of her sable ringlets tickling Caroline's cheek. "Did you fail to note the blackguard's name?"
"On the contrary. Vivienne has transcribed it in her boldest hand with a number of lovingly lavish embellishments." Caroline grimaced at the second page. "Good heavens, did she actually dot the i with a heart?"
"If the mere whisper of his name doesn't strike terror in your own heart, then you must be unaware of his reputation."
"I am now." Caroline continued to scan the letter. "Our sister has thoughtfully provided a most extensive catalogue of his charms. From her glowing recitation, one can assume the gentleman's list of virtues is rivaled only by the Archbishop of Canterbury's."
"While she was extolling the fine cut of his neckcloth and his many kindnesses to widows and orphans, I don't suppose she bothered to mention the fact that he's a vampire."
Caroline rounded on her sister, her scant patience evaporating. "Oh, come now, Portia. Ever since you read that ridiculous tale by Dr. Polidori, you've been seeing vampires lurking behind every curtain and potted shrub. Had I known 'The Vampyre' would seize your imagination in such a ruthless grip, I'd have tossed the magazine on the trash heap as soon as it arrived. Maybe one of the werewolves you've spotted digging through the refuse would have carried it off and buried it."
Drawing herself up to her full five feet and two inches, Portia sniffed. "Everyone knows that Dr. Polidori didn't write that story. Why, he himself admitted to publishing it on behalf of his most famous patient -- one George Gordon, Lord Byron himself!"
"A claim which Byron staunchly denied, I should remind you."
"Can you blame him? How could he do otherwise when the ruthless and brooding character of Ruthven was only a thinly disguised version of himself? He can deny it all he likes, but 'The Vampyre' revealed his true nature for all the world to see."
Caroline sighed, a vein in her temple beginning to throb. "His true nature being that of a bloodsucking creature of the night, I presume?"
"How can anyone doubt it after reading The Giaour?" Portia's eyes took on a distant sheen Caroline knew only too well. Lifting a hand and striking a suitably dramatic stance, Portia intoned:
"But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall fall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race:
There from the daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life."
As Portia's voice faded on a suitably ominous
note, Caroline massaged her throbbing temple
with two fingers. "That doesn't prove Byron is a
vampire. It only proves that he, like every other
great poet, is on occasion capable of spouting momentous
drivel. I can only hope you have more
substantial evidence to convict Vivienne's new
suitor. If not, I shall have to assume this is just like
the time you shook me awake before dawn and
insisted that a family of fairies was living beneath
one of the toadstools in the garden ...
Excerpted from After Midnight by Teresa Medeiros. Copyright © 2005 by Teresa Medeiros. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.