Author’s Note: This is another excerpt from the 1998 work which gave rise to most of the characters in This Heart of Flame. Here, the incubus Matthew discovers that he is not the only one at Club Arkana who has a secret, and to sate his curiosity, he secretly spies on his ex-lover Elizabeth with her new beau, Percival Lawrence. (this snippet occurs prior to the events of “Keeping Secrets,” published earlier to this blog):
Hidden Chambers of the Heart
Elizabeth sat at a small table tucked far away in a remote corner of the club. She was still looking pensively at herself in the mirrors, but she was no longer alone. A man sat across from her, reading to her from a book that lay open between them. She strained forward to hear him, her eyes gleaming. She had every look of heightened arousal about her; the flush on her cheeks stood out starkly against her pallid face. Her features were suffused with an agonized yearning, yet strangely she did not look at her companion. Her rapturous eyes were fixed upon her own reflection in the mirror, as if part of her arousal lay in seeing it etched upon her face.
I held back, studying the scene. Her companion was none other than Percival Lawrence, the member of the club who had stormed from the stage production of Dracula a few nights before. Although it was hard to be certain, I suspected that he was reading to her from that self-same story. The lurid yellow of the binding was just visible beneath the outspread pages. My curiosity aroused, I found an unoccupied table nearby and settled down to watch them.
Over the music of the orchestra and the murmur of the patrons, I could almost hear him. I couldn’t catch any words, but it seemed that there was something deep and richly mellifluous pitched just beneath the usual sounds of the club. As I strained to listen, the velvet undertone faded away, and he closed the book with a sense of finality. It was indeed Dracula. Elizabeth looked from the mirrors along the wall and regarded his eyes through the smoked glasses Halaina said he always wore. He lifted a hand to caress her face. He wore his nails longer than most men, but on him, it gave his long fingers an added elegance. He whispered something to her, earnestly regarding her with dark, half-hidden eyes. She shivered and placed her gloved hand over his, pressing it further against her cheek. Then, fluidly, he rose, turning his hand around to clasp hers. With a genteel and studied grace, he led her toward the back rooms.
I was going to leave them to their private pursuits, and let my issues with Elizabeth drop right then. It was clear to me that she had found another surrogate for her obsessive fantasies, only this time she had chosen a darker angel for her romance. Percival certainly fit the part with his unnatural pallor and dark, burning eyes. I found myself wondering what he would do to her with those graceful long-fingered hands. Curiosity got the better of me, and I strode from my table, hurrying to see which room they would escape into so I could find the corresponding viewing chamber.
I made it through the mirrored doors just in time to see Percival closing a door behind them. To my disappointment, it was suite number ten. One of the few rooms back here that afforded no peepholes for voyeurs. Then I remembered Halaina’s secret panel, giving her the only access to that supposedly private room from her personal suite. Feeling supremely naughty and all the more excited for it, I walked back to Halaina’s rooms and, not even bothering to turn the gaslights on, slipped immediately into the little closet that served as a viewing chamber. I settled quietly as possible onto the trunk pressed against the wall and leaned my eye up against the peep hole. The lighting in the next room was frustratingly low, but once I adjusted, I could see the two figures clearly enough.
Percival had taken his jacket off and lain it over a chair, but still retained his shirt, vest, and trousers. The book, I noticed, sat on the seat of the chair, partly obscured by his jacket. Elizabeth was still fully clothed, wearing a gown of deep burgundy satin accented with ribbons and lace. The wide band of black velvet she had taken to wearing was still snugly in place on her throat. The hint of a smile playing about her darkly rouged lips, Elizabeth bent over a Victrola, her little hand slowly working the crank. While she was thus occupied, Percival carefully removed his dark glasses and set them aside. The change was remarkable. His eyes were deep-set and very striking. For a moment, I was reminded of the actor Alexander’s burning gaze which, turned even briefly upon the audience, sent the ladies swooning. In the next moment, Percival had shaken loose his hair. The gleaming dark waves fell a little past his shoulders, spreading across his back and curling softly around his face. The frame of dark hair made his face seem gaunt and starkly pale.
Elizabeth finished with the Victrola, and the music of a waltz rasped into the room. Brahms, I thought, though it was distant and thready from where I sat. Percival approached her, took her hand in his and bowed over it, bringing it gently to his lips. She whispered something, and her eyes were enormous, glinting as they had when she had been lost in her reverie on angels that night with me. Then he took her in his arms and they danced, slowly, sedately, keeping flawless time to the music.
I leaned back from the peephole to give my eyes a rest. It was strange. I had never seen Elizabeth this subdued, at least sexually. She clung to Percival as they danced, and I could hear those sonorous silken tones of his rumbling underneath the music of Brahms. He seemed to be soothing her. He stroked her hair, leaning his cheek against her cheek and murmuring in her ear. She shivered against him and looked ready to weep with the intensity of her feelings.
They danced together until the end of the song. Then Elizabeth paused to switch the music. Now the Victrola played something low and almost threatening. Minor chords filled the room, deepening the shadows. Mozart’s Requiem. It didn’t strike me as exactly a romantic air. Elizabeth reached up and unfastened the ribbon at her throat, letting it drift to the floor. Then she returned to Percival, and they swayed together slowly in a modified waltz step to the new music. Percival bent as if to whisper something in her ear, but this time he lightly kissed her jaw. She shivered again, her eyes half-lidded. She let her head drift back, arching her neck a little toward him.
Still swaying as the music crescendoed, Percival bent and kissed her throat. The way they were standing, I could see her face over his shoulder as her features alternately flushed and grew pale. Her lips were parted and her eyes tightly closed. She looked for all the world like a woman at the very apex of her passion, and yet all Percival continued to do was bend with his lips to her throat.
I desperately wanted to see what he was doing, but his back was mostly toward me, and when he bent over her neck, his long dark hair fell like a curtain across his face, covering her throat and cascading down her bare shoulder. Elizabeth arched suddenly against him, back bowing against her corset, her head thrown back and her eyes tightly shut. Her fingers were hooked like claws into the back of his vest. I could hear mewling little cries escaping her throat. Percival remained transfixed, his face buried against her throat, those long-fingered hands steadying her at her shoulders and her waist.
I strained against the wall in the closeness of the closet. They still did not move, only grew more intense in their posture. What kind of hold did this fantasy have upon her, if she could be thus transformed by a simple kiss? Or was it something more? I thought of Halaina and her discussions about the compelling figure of Dracula. But of course, that was a play. I had never met a vampire, nor did I know that they could exist. Yet now, I felt the thrill of possibility aching in my chest. Could Percival be such a creature? And was I, an incubus, in a position to doubt such a thing?
But maddeningly, all I saw in the room beyond were two people locked in an intense embrace. And even without his curtain of hair, I doubted I would have been able to see anything significant.
Suddenly as it had begun, it ended. Elizabeth gave a little gasp, and seemed to swoon in Percival’s arms. He caught her delicate body easily, lifting her onto the bed. He eased her against the pillows, and all the while his back was to me. He leaned over her, and I heard the resonant tones of that soft, deep voice. Her name, perhaps, said soothingly several times over. The long-nailed fingers of one elegant hand tenderly stroked her cheek. She stirred beneath his touch, her eyes fluttering against pale lids. Percival left her stretching languorously on the bed while he bent to retrieve the ribbon for her throat. Now his face was to me, but there was nothing I could read into his pallid, foreign features.
Then something strange occurred. As Percival crouched for the ribbon, he brought his head up sharply, searching the room in my direction. He was poised on the balls of his feet, elbows resting on his knees, the ribbon held loosely in the fingers of one hand. It was a strangely feral pose. There was no way he could see me. I was hidden on the other side of the wall, and even the little peephole that afforded my vision of the darkened room was minuscule, cunningly hidden among the pattern of the wallpaper. Nevertheless, he fixed his gaze on me. It was impossible, yet there he was, looking directly at me. His posture tensed more severely and for a moment, I could have sworn his dark eyes gleamed with a light of their own.
“When I discover who you are,” he growled, the velvet tones of his voice carrying clearly to my ears, “There will be a reprisal.”
I sat in the closet, stunned, every nerve jangling. Percival shot a final look of warning in my direction, then turned swiftly to where Elizabeth still dozed upon the bed. Hurriedly, he retrieved his jacket, book, and glasses, then helped rouse Elizabeth. She seemed dizzy and weak, murmuring and leaning against him. He helped her stand, practically carrying her. Never once did he take those smoldering eyes off of me. Shaken, I had to pull away from the peephole. I couldn’t bear the weight of those eyes one moment more. There was definitely something unusual about the artist Percival Lawrence, and sitting in the shadows of Halaina’s private rooms, I vowed that I would discover the truth, regardless of his threats.