Louisa Burton is a painter, writer, and collector of rare books who travels extensively, but whose home is in New York. She is a lifelong devotee of Victorian erotica, history, and mythology. Of particular interest to Louisa are the beings known by demonologists and mythologists as Sexual Demons: incubi, succubi, satyrs, djinn, and vampires, among others. With the Hidden Grotto series, beginning with House of Dark Delights, Louisa is weaving those passions together into an epic work of erotic fiction.
"You want him," Elic murmured into Lili's ear.
Lili, lounging next to him on a damask and gilt chaise in le Salon Ambre, lifted her after-dinner brandy to her lips with a silky smile that was answer enough. "Shh. He'll hear."
Elic glanced across the candlelit room at the object of their attention, a grave young Englishman with large, watchful eyes. At the moment, he was rhapsodizing in his native tongue about the "rich volcanic soil" of Vallee de la Grotte Cachee while Archer listened raptly and Inigo, ever the peacock in a green and gold brocade waistcoat, his mop of black curls riotously unbound, stifled a yawn.
"I say, Beckett," Elic interjected when their visitor paused to take a breath. "Do you have any French?"
Beckett blinked at Elic, took a puff of his cigar, and said, "I confess, I never read it in school."
"How very curious," Lili said in that velvety, exotically accented voice that still, after all these years, sent a hot shiver of desire humming through Elic. "I thought all gently bred Englishmen knew French—not that I've any objection to conversing in English. It is quite as beautiful a language, in its own way."
"You're fucking him with your eyes," Elic told Lili in the French that had long ago replaced the languages of their birth.
"Can you blame me?" Darius leapt onto her lap, curled up in the crackling nest of her skirts, and yawned, displaying a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth. She glided her fingers through his dusky fur as she smiled at David Beckett.
"Can't quite see the appeal," Elic muttered. It wasn't true, of course. Beckett was a darkly handsome man with a stalwart physique set off to damnable advantage by a well-cut black tailcoat. And there was a certain stillness about him, a sense of strong feelings kept under wraps, that imparted a hint of the mysterious.
"Such lies are beneath you," Lili told Elic as she stroked Darius beneath his chin. "And your jealousy is absurd, my love, considering how many bedmates we've shared over the years. Absurd and surprising. Quite unlike you, really."
Turning away from Elic quite deliberately, she apologized to Beckett, in English, for having conducted that exchange in a language he couldn't understand.
The young man met Lili's eyes for a lightning-quick moment, then lowered his gaze to his brandy, which he swirled in a way that was meant to look thoughtful—though to Elic, it bespoke a deep discomfiture. He actually appeared to be blushing, though it was difficult to tell in the wavering candlelight.
From the moment David Beckett had been introduced to Lili upon his arrival that afternoon at Chateau de la Grotte Cachee, he had seemed gripped by an uneasy entrancement. It was hardly an unusual reaction among male visitors to the chateau. Ilutu-Lili, with her lustrous black hair, slumberous eyes, and easy sensuality, had a bewitching effect on men.
She had certainly bewitched Elic; for eighty years he had been caught in her spell. Tonight, with her hair secured by a diamond-crusted comb in a knot of loops and tumbling curls, her shoulders bared by the wide, sloping neckline of her gown—a confection of garnet silk with billowy gigot sleeves and a hand-span waist—she looked the very image of the goddess she truly was.
"What language did you study?" Elic asked Beckett.
"I've taken classes in Latin, Greek, Italian, and Hebrew, though of those tongues, the only ones of which I have a true command are Latin and Italian."
"Quite the well-schooled gardener," Elic said.
The taunt earned him a look of surprised amusement from Inigo and scowls from Archer and Lili. Beckett's gaze lit on Lili before returning to Elic, whom he studied for a long, hushed moment.
Shifting his lantern jaw uneasily, Archer said, "I would, er, hardly call our guest a gardener, given the scope of his expertise and the rather ambitious nature of his work."
Bartholomew Archer had just the year before succeeded his father as administrateur to Theophile Morel, Seigneur des Ombres, the elderly lord of Grotte Cachee and gardien to Elic and his three fellow Follets. Tall and thin as lath, the timorous Brit had yet to grow comfortable in his role as steward of Grotte Cachee; Elic wondered if he ever would.
Archer said, "I should think Mr. Beckett would be more correctly termed, er, a horticulturist."
Beckett said, "On the contrary, Mr. Archer, I infer no shame in the title of gardener. Humphrey Repton, who gave me my initial instruction in this field, styled himself a 'landscape gardener.' I am content to be called the same."
"Humphrey Repton trained you?" Archer said. "I'm impressed."
"Never heard of him," said Inigo, who, having a remarkable facility with languages, spoke English with no trace at all of an accent. Of Greek extraction, he had traveled all over the known world before being recruited in A.D. 14 to pose for the bathhouse statues at Grotte Cachee. He'd made his home there ever since.
Archer said, "Repton was famous for designing, or redesigning, the grounds of some of the finest estates in Britain. How came you to apprentice with him, Beckett?"
"I would hardly call it an apprenticeship," Beckett replied. "I was twelve years old at the time. My father had engaged him to devise a plan for improving the park and gardens at the country house he'd just purchased, which had been neglected for decades. This was in the late summer of 1816, two years before Mr. Repton went to his maker. He'd been injured in a carriage accident, so he needed a wheelchair to get around, and I used to push it for him while he sketched panoramic vistas. His aim was to create a natural but picturesque landscape, and he had impeccable instincts. He turned twelve-hundred dreary, overgrown acres into a veritable paradise. Whole areas were excavated and transformed, hundreds of trees were cut and planted, terraces were built, flower gardens installed."
Archer said, "I've seen Repton's work at Blaise Castle—extraordinary."
"How did he manage such rigorous work, being in a wheelchair?" Inigo asked.
"Oh, he didn't actually execute his designs," Beckett replied. "He was more of an advisor, coming up with the plans and leaving it to his clients to arrange for the actual work."
"Mr. Beckett works in much the same manner," Archer told the assembled company. "During his stay with us, he will inspect the grounds surrounding the castle and devise a scheme for improving them. Upon his return to England, he will prepare a book of notes, plans, and pictures in order that we may implement his ideas."
"It is a method I've borrowed from Mr. Repton," Beckett said. "For each client, he created what he called a 'Red Book,' because it was bound in red leather. The book would contain descriptions of what should be done, including detailed illustrations in watercolor depicting the grounds as they then existed, with vellum overlays showing how that particular area would look should his suggestions be implemented. When Mr. Repton discovered my aptitude for drawing and painting, he allowed me to help him with that end of things, and I found it fascinating. For years after that, I read everything I could get my hands on that had to do with botany, floriculture, architecture. And I painted landscapes, as Mr. Repton had advised, to help develop my sense of natural aesthetics."
"You made a study of these things at university, I suppose?" Lili asked him as she scratched the purring Darius behind his ears.
"I confess I did not. I say, what an agreeable cat. My mother had one, but it hissed at me whenever I would try to pick it up."
"I am afraid my friend here will do the same," Lili warned. "He might even bite you should you get too close. He hates being touched by strangers."
"What did you study?" Elic asked Beckett.
The young man pinned Elic with a brief, trenchant look, as if sizing him up. "It had always been assumed that I would read theology."
Elic hated the way Lili gazed at Beckett, her eyes sparking, her color high. He didn't blame her for her appetites; she could no more ignore them than he could ignore his own. But when the object of that hunger held her in such utter thrall, when there was little doubt just how desperately she ached to possess him, it incited in Elic a primal, almost human covetousness. There was no restraining her when her lust for an exceptionally desirable male—a gabru in her extinct Akkadian tongue—ran this hot, no way to keep her from stealing into his bedchamber during the night and ravishing him as he lay immobilized, or partially so, by one of her ancient Babylonian spells.
Were Elic capable of making love to Lil—really making love—he might have some chance of keeping her all to himself. As an alfr, he should have been able to bed humans and Follets alike, but a chance dusian mutation had skewed his elfin physiology in the womb. No dusios could ease his constant, seething lust save between the legs of a human female. It was a factor in the blood itself, which would literally recoil, draining from his organ the moment he attempted to penetrate a nonhuman. No blood, no erection. No erection, no intercourse.
Regardless of how aroused Lili made him, how achingly hard, the moment he tried to enter her, he would wilt. He could pleasure her only with his hands and his mouth, although from time to time he would join her when she took her human quarry, caressing her, kissing her, and whispering his love into her ear as she thrashed for hours atop her groaning, lust-crazed gabru.
"Theology, eh?" Lili said. "You would be the second son, then, Mr. Beckett? Destined for the ministry?"
"The fourth son, actually. And, er, it was the priesthood, not the ministry."
"My apologies," she said. "One tends to think of all Englishmen as Anglican. A thoughtless presumption."
"Not at all, quite understandable."
"You seem to have managed to forge your own way despite parental expectations," Inigo observed. "Are they miffed that you didn't join the Church?"
Choosing his words with seeming care, Beckett said, "They are content with the path I've chosen."
"So, Beckett," Elic said. "I cannot help but wonder what your connection to the archbishop might be."
The young man stilled in the act of lifting his snifter to his mouth, his gaze darting toward Elic and then away. He rolled the ash off the tip of his cigar, a Cuban from his own supply with a distinctive aroma that evoked whispers of frankincense and coffee. Elic, blessed and cursed with a bloodhound's sense of smell, could also detect, beneath the whiff of fragrant smoke, the Castile soap with which Beckett had recently bathed, the waxy blacking that glossed his fine shoes, and the fresh sweat with which his face was sheened; curious, since it was a cool evening.
Beckett took so long to compose his thoughts that Archer answered for him.
"As I understand it," the administrateur began, "Archbishop Belanger retained Mr. Beckett's services on the advice of friends in England, so the connection would be professional rather than shall we say, convivial."
It had been at a formal dinner recently hosted by Monseigneur Belanger for the local personages of note that Archer, who'd attended in Seigneur des Ombres's stead, had made the acquaintance of David Beckett. Intrigued by the young Englishman's proposal for enhancing the archbishop's property, and nostalgic for the verdant and artless gardens of his homeland, Archer had convinced le seigneur to invite Beckett to Grotte Cachee.
"When I spoke of a connection to the archbishop," Elic said, "I meant the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry the Second. It occurred to me that there might be a relation between Thomas Becket and our Catholic gardener of the same name."
"Would that I could claim such an illustrious association," Beckett said.
"How long will we have the pleasure of your company, Mr. Beckett?" Lili asked with a smile that made Elic clench his jaw.
"Less than a week, I'm afraid, so I shall be a very busy man."
Archer said, "I have explained to Mr. Beckett that a sovereign from the East who visits occasionally shall arrive one week from today with his sizable household, and that he will expect to have the chateau to himself."
What he didn't say was that the "sovereign from the East" was Fadullah the Noble, an Ottoman pasha with an appetite for watching, and that only part of Fadullah's vast household would be accompanying him on this visit—one or two trusted retainers, the most discreet of his servants and eunuchs, and whichever members of his harem he wanted to observe being fucked by other men—specifically, by Elic and Inigo.
"Will six days be enough time for you to come up with a landscaping proposal?" Archer asked his guest.
"It will be if I make efficient use of my time," Beckett said. "Tomorrow afternoon, I shall begin surveying and sketching the grounds, and that will give me a rough idea of the areas that might benefit from a more picturesque approach."
"I can't imagine there's much at Grotte Cachee that wants improvement," Elic said. "You will find little to keep you here, I think."
Lili, clearly put off by his tone, moved away from him in a subtle but stingingly eloquent gesture. She and Darius shared a look. Such petty sniping was out of character for Elic.
Archer said, "It might help to have a bit of guidance on your tour, Mr. Beckett. I've other obligations tomorrow afternoon, but I could show you 'round in the morning."
Shaking his head, Beckett said, "I must go to Clermont-Ferrand in the morning in order to mail a letter."
"Give it to me now, and I shall have someone mail it tomorrow," Archer said.
"It has not been written yet," Beckett said. "I shall write it tonight, and I've other business in town, in any event, things I must buy—more vellum, another sketchbook."
"Very well," Archer said. "I must caution you, though, should you care to explore our cave, as many guests do, not to venture in too far past the bathhouse."
In response to Beckett's look of puzzlement, Archer said, "The Romans who occupied this valley around the time of Christ built a bathhouse on the side of an extinct volcano, which we call Alp Albiorix—its old Gaulish name—so as to take advantage of the cave stream flowing from within. It is quite a lovely little edifice, all of white marble save the back wall, where the entrance to the cave is. It would be prudent, should you decide to have a look in there, to stay within a quarter mile or so of the entrance, where the lamps are. Past that, it becomes a veritable labyrinth. Quite easy to lose one's way, and if you do well. There is no assurance that you will ever be found."
"I shall bear that in mind, Mr. Archer. And now, if you will all forgive me, gentlemen Miss Lil." Beckett stood and bowed in Lili's direction, "I regret that the hour has come when I must retire to my chamber. The letter of which I spoke will be a lengthy one, and all I really want is a good night's sleep."
"May you get your wish, Mr. Beckett," said Lili, her gaze following him as he crossed to the door. "Pleasant dreams."