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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.