YA Historical Fantasy
Sixteen-year-old Anna Bradforde is deadly with a musket. Her precision would make her an asset in the secret war against the vampires encroaching on the young American south. If her family’d let her prove it.
She’s also dying. Weakened by chronic illness, she’s been shielded from the fight. Safe, but useless. A burden.
When a new vampire clan makes themselves known, the Bradfordes find their already-tight resources stretched to the breaking point. Anna will do anything to keep her family and their secret safe. Even murder.
Twenty-year-old Roland Madison is the perfect target: heir to a fortune; impulsive; a closet romantic. Luring him to the altar will be far too easy.
The trap is set, a debut ball with Anna as the bait. But as the vampires close in and Anna’s health continues to fail, she must decide if Roland’s murder is really the only way to assure her family’s survival.
December 16th, 1818
This was supposed to be my debut.
I pressed my forehead to my bedroom window. In the garden below, silver moonlight shone on the guests, Daddy and Mama, and the ivory pins holding her blonde curls in place. The orchestra struck up a quadrille, and my parents stepped to the center.
I should have been down there. Coughs as sharp as claws wracked my lungs. I clutched the quilt closer. I should have been at the center of the quadrille, all eyes on me, radiant in silk and velvet.
One couple at a time, more people joined in. My brother Christopher and sister-in-law Elizabeth. The mayor and his wife. The Augusta elite, their faces familiar from my years of watching though they hadn’t even seen me since I first got sick. We’d spread a story that I was studying abroad with my uncle. He’d been dead for years, but the gentry didn’t need to know. If they did, they’d be concerned.
Concerned people were curious, Daddy’d said. Curious people were nosy. Nosy people were a liability.
I whipped about, and the world spun.
“Can’t I take my eyes off you for one minute?” Deladis stood in the open door, her arms folded tight over her apron. “You’re supposed to be in bed. Don’t make me get Mr. Bradforde.”
I stiffened. Too sick to dance. Too sick to greet the guests. And now too sick to watch my own ball.
I pulled in as deep a breath as I could and let it out slowly. “Just a few minutes longer?”
Deladis gave an exaggerated huff, but the corners of her eyes crinkled. “One more dance, Ms. Anna, I mean it. I will get your daddy on you.”
I smiled at her and turned my attention back to the garden. The opening quadrille ended. Mama stood at Daddy’s side, radiant in my dress. Deladis’d worked on it for months. And I didn’t even get to wear it.
“I want to extend my thanks to everyone for joining us here tonight," Daddy said. "As you know, this was to be my little Anna’s debut. Unfor—”
The ballroom door burst open, and my brother Samuel rushed to Daddy’s side. His bleak mourning attire set him apart among the glittering gems. He laid a hand on Daddy’s shoulder, whispered something, and retreated. Daddy motioned for Christopher and Mama to follow.
“I’m very sorry,” Daddy said. Whispers welled around him, and he raised a hand for silence. He still smiled, but his voice was stern. “I’m afraid there’s a family emergency. Please, enjoy the music and refreshments. We’ll rejoin you as soon as we’re able.”
“I have to go.” I swung my feet off the window seat, swayed, and Deladis steadied me.
“It’s all right, Ms. Anna,” she said, keeping a hand on my shoulder. “Let them handle it. You need rest.”
I shook my head. The room swam. “I need to be with my family. Something’s wrong.”
“But the guests—”
I looked up into her dark brown eyes, and she gave an indulgent shake of her head. “Take the back stairs.” She held my redingote for me, and I slipped it snug around my shoulders. “Do you need help?”
“No, I’ve managed on my own before.” I said it more steadily than I felt, but she still followed me out of my bedroom and along the corridor.
My feigned strength lasted until I reached the top of the stairs. Out of breath already, I looked down at the fifteen steps that stood between me and the hallway to the study. Damn my pride.
“Are you sure, Ms. Anna?” Deladis asked softly. “It’s nothing shameful.”
“No. I’ll manage it.”
I gripped the smooth wood railing with both hands and took the first step. I made sure of my footing on the hardwood stair. One step. Another. Another. My lungs burned. Deladis hovered behind me, ready to catch me if I swayed.
I gripped the railing tighter and pressed on. One more step. One more. By the time I reached the bottom, my arms trembled from keeping myself upright. Still, I looked up the stairway and gave a shaky, triumphant laugh. True to my word, I’d done it alone.
I stumbled the rest of the way to the downstairs study. Over Deladis’ retreating footsteps, the music in the garden, and the rasp of my breathing, I heard whispers. I rapped lightly on the door.
The brass knob turned, the door opened a crack, and Daddy’s brown eyes peered out. “Anna! You should be in bed!”
“I wanted to be here,” I assured him. “I’m well enough. I want to work.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Mama, who nodded. He swung the door wider to admit me and then turned the lock behind us. Daddy guided me to a seat at the table between Mama and Christopher.
Mama pushed a cup of tea to me, but I hesitated before I picked it up. This was one of her favorite tricks: if my hands shook at all, she’d whisk me back to bed, and not a thing I could say would stop her.
“Thank you,” I said. Commanding my hands to be still, I raised the fine china cup to my lips and sipped. Honey and lemon played over my tongue. I delicately set the cup back on its saucer. “Delicious.”
Her expectant gaze turned to frustration, but she didn’t press me. “I know what my daughter needs,” she said with the same practiced smile she’d taught me.
“Let's have the report,” Daddy said, nodding to the man across the table from me, Commander Petersen.
He’d been part of our war since before I was born. Usually, I was glad to see him, but the set of his shoulders was wrong. Tight. His hair was grayer about the temples than it had been just a few months ago, and he had dark rings under his eyes. I’d only ever seen him impeccably groomed, but he had mud on his jacket.
Petersen spread a map over the table and placed a marker a few miles from his station in Richmond. “We found a new warren here,” he said. “There were a dozen bodies, drained dry, and a heap of weapons to your hip.
“These aren't the vampires we're used to. They're careful. Old. We hit hard, but the bastards had already escaped. All slipped out but one.”
Mama set her teacup aside. “That’s disappointing, Commander,” she said coolly, the remains of her French accent curling around the words. She usually tried to hide it, but not when it was just us. “We expect better of you. Still, it's nothing that couldn’t wait for your month-end report. Why come at a gallop?”
“Because the one they left behind had this.” He reached into his coat pocket and flung a letter upon the table. The profile of a moose’s head was pressed into the wax seal. Petersen glanced at Daddy. “It’s addressed to you.”
Daddy broke the seal and unfolded the letter. Samuel stood just behind his shoulder and read along. I watched their faces, but they gave away none of the letter’s contents. Daddy passed the parchment to Petersen and then to Mama who, curse it, read just as impassively. Then she crumpled the thing and tossed it into the fireplace.
I watched the edges blacken and shrivel, my hands balled into fists in my lap. Too sick even to read.