New Orleans, 1849
Anne Donovan would do anything for John Thiroux.
She would die for him.
Sitting in front of the cracked mirror Madame had provided for her in the tiny, shabby room that was hers based on the fact that John paid to keep her available, Anne brushed her auburn hair. Embracing the familiar tingle in her body, the heaviness in her breasts, the ache between her thighs that always arose when she thought of her lover, she sighed with contentment, anticipation. John was everything to her, an absolute angel of a man, and she was in completely and utterly in love with him. He had saved her from the steady stream of obnoxious men she'd previously had to endure in various bawdy houses to stay off the streets, and his favor allowed her to send money to her cousin for her daughter's upkeep. It was true she'd had a private benefactor prior to John, but that one had been an oddity, and Anne had been grateful to exchange him for the beauty and passion of her current lover.
The knock on her door cut through her lazy daydreaming and had her pushing her chair back and hastily dropping the tarnished hairbrush down on the vanity table next to her rouge. She wasn't ready. She didn't have John's tray set with his drink poured, pipe out, his favorite spoon lying next to the bottle. Panicked at the thought of doing anything less than pleasing him entirely, Anne was yanking at the bodice of her gown to adjust it and rushing across the room when Madame popped her head in. Relief flooded her for a brief, glorious minute, until she heard the woman's words.
"I'm sending a gentleman in to see you."
Fear slid over top of her relief, as Anne stared at Madame's round, fleshy, dissolute face. The phrase felt foreign, unheard for months, familiar in the sick pit it created in the depths of her stomach. "What? You can't meanÉ" Her heart pounded at the thought of pleasuring another man besides John. Touching a stranger, taking him into her mouth and body, enduring the strain of humiliation, revulsion. She had thought that behind her. "JohnÉ"
"Mr. Thiroux requested this," Madame said with a wink. "He's in a strange mood tonight, honey, drunk already, and asked to watch you in play with his gentleman friend."
That gave her pause. John had never made such a request before, but then again, she did recall him mentioning that he enjoyed the fact that she'd known so many men, that she had her choice of protectors, and yet preferred his body to others. He often talked at length about how she would one day tire of him and seek another, which she knew beyond a doubt she never would. Her heart, her soul, belonged to him, and she craved him, ached for his approval, burned for his body, longed for his love.
She stood indecisively. Decisions were not her strong suit. She'd made a significant numbers of poor ones, the succession of which had led her to the unfortunate lifestyle she had found herself in prior to meeting John. Yet none so important as this decision now, because she could not jeopardize her position with him. "I don't knowÉ that doesn't seemÉ"
"Would you want to anger him?" Madame demanded. "Ruin a good thing for you and me? You don't have a choice. This man is an artist, like Mr. Thiroux. He'll be gentle, and he'll be in in two minutes. Remove your gown and save some time."
Though it still seemed as though this could be a mistake, Anne hastened to obey as the door closed. She would do anything John wanted. Anything. She would die for him.
Gabriel St. John knew that he was fallen. From angel to demon, favorite to disdained, he embraced the change, welcomed the passion, wallowed in the ecstasy he found day after day in the bottom of the bottle, and night after night in the arms of his favorite whore. In the two years of his tenure walking the earth as a Watcher, he had absorbed the stench and pain of human misery surrounding him until he could no longer suffer the helplessness and hopelessness they brought upon him. Their sad, desperate, begging eyes were a much easier burden to bear when his over-heightened angelic senses were dulled from vast quantities of whiskey, opium, and the beautiful green fairy of absinthe he had come to adore. It was a drink he had come to worship, to crave with every ounce of his preternatural essence. His absinthe was his clarity, his respite, his one true love.
"Good evenin,' Mr. Thiroux," a stout woman in full-blown scarlet silk said to him.
Gabriel stepped inside the parlor, such as it was, of The House of Rest For Weary Men. The name of the two-bit bordello never failed to amuse him, the irony even more prominent in his case, given that while he was weary, he was not a man, and in either case, rest was never what a man sought at this particular address. Escape. Fleshly pleasure. A bawdy good time. Oblivion. They were all sought at various times by various men for mere pennies passed to Madame's hand. Gabriel was never bawdy, but he longed most vigorously for escape, for a contentment that eluded him, for the respite the grandiose name promised.
"Good evening, Madame Conti, you're looking well." In fact, Madame was looking rather ill at ease, standing in front of him, blocking his way to the creaky, slanted stairs that led him up to Anne, where his glass and spoon would be waiting. Perhaps he'd forgotten to pay. He wasn't really sure when he'd last fronted Madame money for his nightly sojourns, but several months prior he had sold a painting for a significant amount, and had settled his affairs far enough into the future that he had lost awareness of the time.
"You're early tonight," she commented, fanning her heavy bosom vigorously with a faded lace fan.
"Impatient." He gave her a smile and took a step forward, assuming she would move. The dryness in his mouth was irritating, the shake in his hands increasing.
Madame Conti didn't move, which annoyed him. Moreover, she placed one fleshy hand on his chest and stopped any progress he might have made. "Anne isn't ready for you yet, Mr. Thiroux."
Gabriel despised the use of his false name. But he disliked being made to wait even more. Staying away for twelve hours of daylight was becoming more and more of a struggle for him. "I do not care. Whatever she is doing can be done in my presence."
"In all certainty. But I'm guessin' you don't want to see it."
Gabriel stared at Madame Conti, nee Ginny Black, and narrowed his eyes. A former prostitute who had invested wisely, Madame was a shrewd businesswoman, with a mixed vocabulary, acute intelligence, and a devious mind. She didn't miss an opportunity to make money.
"What might I see?" Though he already had a suspicion, and it did not please him.
It was an innocuous remark, but Madame tipped her hand by shifting slightly in front of him again. Rage lit through him, clashing with the craving for his drink and pipe, and sent heat rushing into his face. "She's with another man, isn't she?"
There was no response, which was as telling as an admission. Gabriel brushed past her and pounded up the steps, down the hall, and shoved open the door to Anne's room. What he saw made his stomach twist in an unpleasant knot. Anne was beneath a man, her slim pale legs spread. A broad shouldered man with black hair was mounting her with noisy enthusiasm. Gabriel couldn't see Anne's face, but she was giving encouraging mewling sounds. His sounds. They belonged to him.
Madame slid to a stop behind him. "It's just business," she said. "No sense letting her laze around all day."
"Dispense with him or I will," Gabriel told her. He wasn't exactly sure why he was so angry, but Anne was his. She and his opium and absinthe were all intertwined in his mind, and he loved his pipe and his drink, loved the pleasure she gave him while his mind sharpened and his body floated, while he stretched and strained to achieve an escape from mortality.
Stepping into the hall, Gabriel wiped at the cold sweat on his forehead, struggling to ignore the pervasive nausea clawing at his innards. He knew his human body was addicted to the alcohol, the opium, and the absinthe, and he felt no remorse for that, just merely resented the inconvenient symptoms of withdrawal. Leaning against the wall, he waited. It was a mere jaw-locking, bile-producing three minutes later that a man brushed past him, cursing while Madame offered him three girls in compensation for the one he'd lost.
Gabriel didn't even glance at the man, that irritated, whining voice familiar, yet not enough for him to care, to look up, to connect the pieces that floated around his agonized, sloshing brain. He was amazed that Madame had carried out his demand to get rid of Anne's unexpected client, but then again, Gabriel spent an obscene amount of money in her establishment monthly. He was a preferred client.
Anne appeared at the door, clad in a dressing gown, rich a...