Candace Cupardé was a ghost. Specifically, Cupid’s ghost. And being a ghost was no picnic. She longed to let loose her displeasure with a few choice words. But, unfortunately, as Cupid (ghost or not, withstanding) that was an impossibility. Choice words just would not form on her tongue. If she tried to say “damn” it came out as “dart.” “Bastard” formed as button on her disobedient tongue, and if she tried to say “hell”—you guessed it: the word “heart” spewed forth. And well, heart just lacked certain satisfactory elements. Like telling the devil to go to—heart? Most irritating.
Candace was almost certain her long-time friend Dracula (hereto referred as devil), also better known as creepy-scary-vampire-guy, had found some way to divest Candace of her one opportunity of transforming back into her former magical self. And she was furious.
“Honestly, Candi—” Drac started.
“Don’t call me that.”
“It’s your name. Besides, I like it. It makes me want chocolate.” Drac’s somewhat dramatic sigh was almost comical. “I wish chocolate sustained me like blood. It’s much more appetizing.”
“Some big bad vampire, you are,” she muttered.
“So what do you think of our party so far?”
“Our party?” Candace hovered in the cobwebs next to Drac and looked out over a menacing array of monsters. She spotted Frankenstein, the Mummy, several ghouls. Igor was seen escorting an attractive young man carrying Mya through the hall to an empty chamber. She was a selkie. Candace looked back at Drac situated on a long black chandelier bar, between two flaming sconces.
“Certainly. You and I are a team,” he said with a pointed gaze in her direction. “That was some miracle you worked on Ren and Wendy.”
Candace was down to four arrows. She needed to unite five couples in love. True love. A tricky business, as there had to be the sustenance for the love to take hold and stick. “I had to do that. You were about to sink your teeth into her pretty little neck,” she said glumly. His eyes twinkled with mischief, his grin cheeky. “Oh, go to—” She stopped, shook her head, exasperated. It just wouldn’t have the same impact.
Drac wasn’t a bad vampire as far as vampires went. In fact, most of the time she really liked him, adored him in fact. Her heart (when she’d had a heart) fluttered like a flock of butterflies when he was near. He was so dart attractive. So much so, that sometimes she found herself wishing . . .
Candace pushed away the notion, frustrated. There wasn’t anything she could do about longings far beyond her control. She had no substance any longer.
Drac laid his hand over hers . . . or tried. It passed through her hand, all the way to the bar he sat on. He frowned.
“What?” She laughed, though it was strained and awkward. “Are you saying you’re tired of blood?”
“Among other things.” Something in his voice caught.
Curious at this odd turn, she floated in front of him and looked him in the eye. “What do you mean?”
Avoiding her gaze, he shrugged. “The whole lifestyle is tiresome, if you must know.”
“You mean like being a filmy ghost where nothing and no one can latch onto you?” she teased, shooting through the chandelier and back proving her point.
He scowled. “I suppose that’s what I mean, in a sense.” Drac hesitated, lips pursed as if biting back a confession. He inhaled deeply, then said, “It’s more along the lines of living in a tomb, never seeing the light of day, or being able to check my appearance in the mirror.”
“Well, that I can certainly relate to,” she muttered.
He didn’t seem to hear her. “It was never my plan to become a vampire, you know. The idea was my father’s. He was the true Dracula. I fail to do the family name justice.”
“I don’t understand.” Concern filled her. She’d never seen this side of her longtime friend. Drac was always the confident, dart dastardly, demon. Occasionally, a fetching demon. One might even suggest dreamy demon.
“Father was the one into everlasting life or some such drivel. I guess he just never figured on being stabbed in the heart with a wooden cross by—” He cleared his throat with a cough. “Er, uh, on a night similar to this.”
Hmmm, fascinating. “Similar to this?”
He threw out his hand. “A night of the harvest moon.”
“Ah,” she said. Her senses trembled. Someone was in desperate need of her. “Hold on.” Candace dashed from the ballroom, slipping through the door where she'd seen Mya carried. She tugged an arrow from the quiver on her back and set her bow. With a careful aim, she let it fly, stabbing the young man in the heart. His hand landed over his heart. Satisfied, Candace whizzed back to Drac and studied him, frowning. She’d never seen him like this before.
And that was saying something. They’d known one another for years, hundreds of them. “If you weren’t a blood-sucking vampire, what do you suppose you would see yourself doing? You know? For a living.”
The question seemed to surprise him. She kept one eye out over the rambunctious monsters below. She still had three love connections to perform to fulfill her duty in gaining back her substance. Then she’d be able to vacate this cold, haunted manor.
“The blood is just for survival.”
Candace bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing at his haughty defense and murmured some placating nonsense.
His gaze turned distant, his voice grew soft. “Two hundred years ago, I yearned to serve under Wellington, help take down Napoleon. Instead, all I managed was a bite out of him.” Drac shuddered. “His blood was tainted. I was sick for months.”
“A little over a hundred years later, I had an inkling that decorated veteran of World War I was trouble.” He scowled, furrowed his brows. “1923, I believe. His attempted coup in Munich failed with a little help from moi, and he went to prison. But as we learned later, that wasn’t near enough to deter him.”
Candace frowned. “Decorated veteran. Who?”
Candace colored at Drac’s appalled glance. “Oh.” He must think her a complete dunce. Hitler was a true devil.
Drac’s gaze shifted below. “I should have killed the bastard when I had the chance. But after that bout of illness with Napoleon . . . Well—”
Of course, words like button formed easily enough for Drac! Candace floated about, considering his words. “Yes, but what about now?” she insisted.
“Rid the world of terrorism.” His response was quick and succinct.
She swallowed a hard lump in her throat. A wave of intense longing, settled over her, and she turned quickly lest he read her emotions on her face.
Drac would have made a dart dashing hero. Heart! If she had the magic to fix that for him . . . well, it broke her (actual) heart. She turned back to him, fanning her face (to no avail). “Oh, Drac,” she said gently. “You want . . . you want . . . world peace.”
Candi’s insight startled, and burned, through him. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Drac said harshly. The emotions roiling through his cold veins made him feel hot enough to fear his father’s ashes reassembled in nothing flat, and dog him to the gates of hell.
“Ha!” Candi Cupardé fluttered about like a firefly, but with more spunk and guile than he’d ever witnessed in his six hundred and fifty-five years (give or take) life. In spite of her wispy presence, he admired her long, blond waves and startling, blue eyes that rarely missed a thing.
She thrust down through the air and pulled another arrow from her pouch and aimed. Smack! Right into the heart of Simza Nuri. Only two left.
Pouting was not a masculine trait, but Drac couldn’t help it. For a man doomed to the cellars during daylight, Candi was the one bright spot he counted on. Wasn’t it bad enough he was condemned to lie in a sarcophagus, day after day after day? Whoever said immortality was the end all had not had to live by that creed.
Although, Madame Mirela assured him the possibility of five couples attending this shindig and finding love together was impossible, he didn’t trust the fortune teller an inch. The woman had an agenda of her own. And if Candi did manage to do to join five couples to true love, Drac would be forever alone. She was his destiny. Air squeezed from his lungs like the vice of an iron bar.
Guilt swallowed him. Why couldn’t he just suck it up like a pint of blood, and tell her how he felt? Let her know how much he loved her company. How much he loved her. What kind of selfish bastard kept Cupid to himself?
Just the thought of letting her go nauseated him. He felt ill. More ill than after he’d sunk his fangs into Ivan the Terrible in 1547.
Drac couldn’t lose her. And with only one more pair to unite, she’d be gone from him. Forever.
“Did you see that, Drac?” Her vivacious laugh pricked this heart like a thousand needles. “Sebastian refused to let me help him, but he didn’t say anything about my poking Natalie. The man is saved despite his protestations!”
Drac blinked, and she bobbed in front of him. Taunting him.
She giggled. “I’m going to make it. I have only one arrow left. Then I’ll be free of this cold, dank life.”
Red colored his vision in the depth of his fear. He covered it with rage. “You might as well give it up, Candace,” he growled. “You aren’t going to win this little battle. And there won’t be another Harvest Moon for two hundred years.” Two more centuries with her.
The fury in her expression would have made him laugh if it hadn’t been so frightening. In a flash, she jerked out the last arrow, set her bow and let go.
Tingles filled Drac’s vision, the red fading to spots of black and white. He wavered on his perch. “You shot me? Me?” This was okay, he thought. Dead is okay. “I won’t have to live without you now, love,” he whispered.
His grip loosened and he fell. Free at last.
Love? Drac said love?
“Igor!” Candace yelled. “Igor, catch him.” And me, but the words to save herself caught in her throat. Candace struggled to fly, but her usual light reflexes were hampered by weight she hadn’t needed to account for since the last harvest moon as she tumbled through the air like a lead ball.
An eternity later, she landed on legs that refused to support her unexpected weight. She fell to her knees.
Igor lowered Drac’s unconscious form to the floor. Her throat burned as she tried to swallow. It hurt.
Everyone’s attention focused on Drac. He’d hate that. And now she’d killed him. Candace laid her hand on his warm face. Warm?—yes. To the touch. T.O.U.C.H!
How could that be? She gaped at a hand that should have gone through his cheek . . . completely to other side.
Slowly she raised her eyes to the surrounding crowd. Their united gazes moved from Drac to her. She swallowed again. But none of that mattered. She dropped her eyes back to Drac, clasped his hand in hers and held it to her chest. “Drac, Drac, I’m sorry. Please don’t die. I love you.”
An eerily silence filled the room. Candace raised her head to a parting crowd for the imposing figure of Madame Mirela. She sashayed through the makeshift isle, her full-hooped, Victorian, solid black dress sweeping the floor with each step. Venom dripped from her sooty lashes.
She tipped her elegantly coiffed head in Candace’s direction. “Mademoiselle Cupardé.”
“What are you doing here?” Candace demanded. An urge to protect Drac enveloped her. She scooted closer, tempted to throw her body over hims.
Lips tightened and disgust marring her brow, the woman seethed fury. “Your flimsy arrows are only good for striking at the heart of lovers already destined for one another or . . . or building furniture.”
“What do you mean?” Candace prayed she understood Madame Mirela correctly. But one glance at Drac’s pale countenance. . .
“Only the hardest of wood can take out a vampire such as Dracula. Tis how his father met his fate.” Hate shimmered in her gaze and Candace flinched.
Hope filled her despite the fortune teller’s censure. “I don’t understand.” Of course, Candace's arrows were for striking love into hearts not for killing vampires.
“His father drove me to madness and now I have lost his son.” Skirts rustled and bodies shifted at Madame Mirela’s shocking confession.
Horrified, Candace spoke without thinking. “You killed Drac’s father two hundred years ago?” A wisp of memory curdled her insides. “The last Harvest Moon. . .” her voice trailed. Candace had whisked through the ballroom, determined to help Drac’s unappreciative father. He’d been hell-bent on wreaking havoc throughout the region. Drac had been miserable, embarrassed by his father’s antics. The bloodthirsty bastard had shown no mercy to anyone in his path. Candace would have suffered as well, if Sebastian hadn’t already choked the life from her. She owed Sebastian for that at least.
Candace looked down at Drac. “He’s so pale,” she whispered.
But a night of the harvest moon promised miracles and to her relief Drac’s lashes fluttered then opened. He pinned her with a direct, unrelenting fix. “You love me?”
“Yes, of course. I’ve loved you for centuries.” She frowned, confusion filling her. “Why aren’t you dead?”
With Igor’s help, Drac rose to sitting. “I-I don’t know.”
“Bonjour, Dracula.” Madame Mirela turned her viperous demeanor on Drac. “Much to your regret, you fool, your sweet Candi has fulfilled her bargain.” She laughed, but it resembled nothing like humor. “She is no longer just your ghost.”
“Oh.” Despite the throng of individuals (monsters and such) standing about, Drac’s desolation in that one tiny syllable reverberated throughout the ballroom. A thrill of excitement shot up Candace's spine. From the corner of her eye she spotted Wendy in her bright red gown, her lips moving with some incantation. Candace prayed it didn't backfire on them all.
“Alas, her final arrow was not for decimating vampires—the one through your heart—was not of the correct type of wood.” Madame Mirela hissed. “Ash, oak, alder, holly.”
Candace wrinkled her nose as her words penetrated. “Are you telling me that the arrow I shot through Drac did not make him call me ‘love’?”
“Bah.” Disdain pinched her haughty features, and she sniffed. “A ridiculous notion. You have no power over love.”
Drac leaped to his feet, seemingly fully recovered, anger radiating. Candace glanced quickly at Wendy now sporting a satisfied quirk on her face. “Don’t you speak to her like that, old woman,” he hissed. “She’s Cupid! She’s helped millions find their life’s mate. Perhaps millions more, if I hadn’t been so selfish keeping her for my own the last two centuries.”
Candace sat back on her heels, mesmerized by Drac’s dramatic display. He opened his mouth to expose his fangs. The crowd gasped, stepped back. But Candace didn’t see his fangs. Where were his fangs? Gone. Drac’s fangs were gone.
“Drac,” she whispered. “What have I done?”
Madame Mirela bristled. “You are nothing,” she said to Drac. Her shrill voice screeched through the ballroom, threatening the fragility of the champagne glasses. The old woman turned to Candace, piercing her with such loathing, she flinched. “This is all your fault. You’ve robbed him of his immortality. He belonged to me. And, now—I have nothing. You’ve ruined me, Mademoiselle Cupardé. But take heed. I shall have my revenge, two hundred years hence.” Madam Mirela morphed into a crow and soared across the ballroom through the opened French doors at the far end of the hall.
Drac straightened his shoulders and held out his hand to Candace. Candace was touched by the slight tremble he failed to hide. “Come, my love.”
Candace put her hand in his and rose to her feet on shaky legs.
“Please, resume your good time,” he announced to a stunned audience. He peered at Candace, eyes glittering with something undefined. “We’ve plans to make, a sunrise to witness. Our first of many, together.” The clock struck the witching hour as he touched his lips to hers. Warm. Delicious.
“Are you truly okay, Drac?” She glanced over her shoulder to the French doors.
“I am,” he said, tugging her to the balcony doors. Drac tucked her hand into his arm and said, “She’s gone, darling, for at least two hundred more years. Tell me. What sort of wooden arrows are those of yours?”
“Willow, I believe. A soft wood. They wouldn’t hurt a flea,” she promised. “Or a man no longer wishing to be a vampire.”