Damn it, how much more of this could she take?
A vermilion patch of blood stained the alabaster snow – no, she had tried that already. In the eyes of Time, love seemed to those gathered nothing more than a fleeting dream – Eurgh. That didn't even make sense. She pursed her lips and tapped her quill against her cheek before lightly resting it against the paper once more. The full moon shone above the clearing like a sick, crimson orange, foreshadowing the horror of the scene below -
No, no, no!
Oranges weren't even red, for crying out loud!
She scowled and made a few large, crimson slashes across the offending words before crumpling the page and hurling it into the garbage. It came to rest with a soft rustle atop a stack of similar snowball-shaped papers – the afternoon's efforts, as it transpired. Environmentalists around the world would have cringed at the carnage.
Luckily, the members of her rather unusual family were not at all interested in preserving the environment, and even if they had been, they would probably have known better than to disturb her at such a time.
"WHAT?" she barked, turning so sharply her chair tumbled to the floor. She tumbled with it and shortly found herself sprawled in an undignified – not to mention painful – tangle of real and wooden legs upon the hard stone floor of Grandpa Drac's guest bedroom. "OW!"
"Always the graceful one," her no-good cousin said with a snicker. Leila swatted aside his offered hand with an angry slap, causing Sanger to wince.
"Get out of my room!" Leila shrieked.
Sanger, however, had already spotted the paper on the table. He sidestepped her attempted kick and swiped it off the table. "What's this?"
"That," Leila declared indignantly, "is MINE!"
Sanger wrinkled his nose and read aloud. "The salmon-streaked skies were slowly fading into rainbowy obscurity, heralding the coming of icy Night. The two lovers, souls entwined in a passionate embrace, were unaware of the horror lurking in the shadows, waiting to engulf them and shatter their everlasting happiness... Great Lords of Hell, where do you come up with this crap?"
Leila snatched the page away, glaring venomously. "Just because YOU do not appreciate Art–"
"That isn't Art, Lee dear. That is what you get when you take Shakespeare and Joanna Lindsey, put them in a blender, and set it to 'pulverize'. And add a dash of Nicholas Sparks, some syrup, and tomato sauce for good measure."
"It disturbs me that you even know who Joanna Lindsey is," Leila said suspiciously.
"Yes, well," Sanger said shiftily, "I might have invaded a bookstore while looking for prey one night."
Leila tapped her foot against the floor impatiently, raising an eyebrow.
Sanger gave her a hurt look. "If you must know, Felix told me the really tasty victims would be in the Romance section. How was I to know he was lying? Not only was he lying, but the only person there was a perverted old lady who asked me to help her with her shopping and then tried to grope me before I could get away."
"A truly terrifying experience," Leila mocked, eyes glinting with sadistic mirth. At least, she liked to think of it as sadistic mirth. It was really closer to mild amusement at Sanger's expense. But "sadistic mirth" sounded so much more...
Or... Shakespeare + Joanna Lindsey + Nicholas Sparks + eggbeater if you subscribed to Sanger's way of thinking.
"You try being harassed by a ninety-plus woman and see how you like it," Sanger retorted, shuddering. "I'll bet she sits in bookstores all day waiting for handsome vampires to walk by and then tries to fool them with her 'I'm just a poor old lady' act..."
"Handsome?" Leila choked. "Why did she pick you, then?"
Sanger's ears went red (quite a feat for a being who was normally bloodless). "Shut up."
Leila snorted a few more times. "Anyway, you know better than to listen to Felix," she said self-righteously, when she was done imitating the noises made by a hungry pig. "The Resident Idiot loves to make everyone else look stupider than himself."
"I was tired," Sanger said defensively. "Sleep deprived. Wasn't thinking."
"Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say," Leila muttered.
Sanger shot her a sulky look. "Just because your parents abandoned you over the holidays is no reason to be rude."
Leila gritted her teeth, seething. He just had to bring that up. "They didn't abandon me!" she exclaimed angrily. "They went to Majorca to visit Father's side of the family. They didn't take me because Mother has the flu and they didn't want me to catch it-"
Sanger rolled his eyes. "Our kind doesn't catch the flu, imbecile."
Leila marched toward him, fangs bared in a feral scowl. Something in her expression must have told Sanger he had gone too far (or, more likely, he was just a coward), for he backed up hurriedly. "Did you come here just to annoy me?" Leila snarled. "Get out!"
"A-actually," Sanger stammered, "Grandmother sent me up here to tell you that dinner is ready."
"Well you can tell her that I'm busy," Leila snapped.
"Oh good. More for me, then."
"Glutton," Leila muttered as Sanger beat a hasty retreat, returning to her work without a backward glance.
She glanced at the page and tore it to shreds. Trash – that was what it was. Horribly-written trash at that. She put her head in her hands and groaned.
Everything – every effing idea that entered her brain – was a rip-off. A sham. A cliché. She was a failure to the worst degree; she was a stealer of ideas. Been there, done that.
But of course... She wasn't important enough for her parents to care about her – why should she be anything but a failure as a writer?
"Leila, hon. Time for dinner, sweetie."
Leila cringed. "Um, Auntie?" she mumbled, trying to look anywhere but at the vision in silk that had just bustled into the room, "You really... shouldn't wear pink..."
"Nonsense, dear. It brings out the color in my eyes, if I say so myself," Aunt Cruella said, chuckling coquettishly. "You could care a bit more for your appearance, if you don't mind my saying so... you'll never find yourself a decent husband at this rate-"
"I'm seventeen," Leila interjected through gritted teeth.
Cruella ignored her, swooping forward and peering, poodle-like, at Leila's clothes. "–Good gracious dear, your skirt has holes in it! What atrocious attire! Doesn't your mother care what you run around in?"
"She doesn't give a damn, and neither do I."
"Such language!" Cruella huffed, grabbing Leila by the arm and all but dragging her out of her chair. Leila's aunt reached into the closet and pulled out the first thing she laid her pudgy hands upon: a frilly (and very horrible) lacy blue dress. Leila eyed it with a horror unrivaled even by the dreadful Thing lurking in the shadows of her shredded attempt at a romance novel...
"I. Am. Not. Wearing. That."
Thirty-four minutes and twenty-two seconds later Leila finally entered the dining hall. Sanger caught sight of her murderous expression and scooted his chair back a few feet. The others caught sight of her dress and also scooted their chairs backward.
"Ah, Leila, don't you look pretty tonight!" Grandma Mina cooed.
"Doesn't she?" Cruella asked, beaming.
"Yeah... pretty... like a cross between a bluebird and a giant egg," Cousin Eurydice muttered snidely. Leila stomped on the unlucky girl's foot with all her might under the table, inducing a shriek of pain.
"There was an ant on her foot," Leila said sweetly. "I didn't want her to get bitten. She is so dear to me, after all."
Lord, she hated family reunions. Eurydice would be petty and condescending, Felix was always acting like an idiot (or trying to steal some champagne without Mina noticing, which was also idiotic behavior, so I don't know why I mentioned it as a separate parenthetical statement), Third Cousin Eggbert was perpetually in the eggnog, Gramps was trying to pretend everyone at the table did not exist (which Leila actually found a pleasant change most of the time), Sanger was huddling surreptitiously in a corner, obviously hoping not to be noticed, and the younger cousins were running around pulling the dogs' tails and refusing to eat their blood stew. And Cruella, of course, was currently trying to seduce Cousin Eggbert, which was perhaps the most disturbing sight of all.
"Of course, dear. I heard you were having some trouble in the story-writing department?" Grandma Mina said kindly, patting Leila on the cheek in a way that made Leila feel like she was four. Luckily, it dragged Leila away from the disturbing sight of Cruella batting her darkened eyelashes in what she obviously believed was an attractive manner.
Felix sniggered thuggishly. "You can write?" Eurydice shrieked with fawning laughter as though Felix had made some sort of brilliant joke, and Leila was sorely tempted to cover her ears.
"Yes, actually. Which is more than you can claim," she shot back snidely.
"Now, now, be nice," Mina chided, patting Leila on the cheek again with one old, white hand. "Leila, here's a word of advice for you, Love. If there's one thing I've learned in all my years telling stories to my little children and grandchildren, it is that the best stories are the ones that are based on real life."
"I can't do that, Grandmother!" Leila exclaimed. "My life is so dull!"
"Nonsense," Mina retorted. "Not everyone can claim to be the granddaughter of the most well-known vampire in Europe."
Felix chortled. "I can!"
Everyone stared at him. He stared back for at least thirty seconds before –
"Whoa... dude... that's not what I meant..." he mumbled.
"Something you're not telling us, Felix?" Leila asked acerbically.
Oh yes. Family reunions were just ducky.
"If the various members of the family are done making utter fools of themselves," Dracula said, and a hush fell over the entire table, "I'd like to introduce all of you to our dinner guest. This is Viscount Courtel. He will be spending the week at the castle."
He indicated the vampire to his right; with a start, Leila realized she had been so busy wallowing in mortification that she had utterly failed to notice him. An unremarkable fellow, she thought, sparing him a single scornful glance. Mousy brown hair. A rather pompous expression befitting a lord. He had to be at least as old as Cruella. Hmph. Maybe the two of them would get married, and her aunt would stop projecting her subconscious desires onto her unfortunate niece.
One could only hope.
Leila turned back to her grandmother. "Think about what I've said," Mina told her kindly, shoving a forkful of baked peas across the table and into a resisting youngster's mouth. "You may find it helpful."
Leila resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Right. And I'm the Queen of Sheba.
They were chasing her, she thought. They had to be doing this on purpose. It was downright scary. She couldn't go anywhere without –
"Ah, hello," the Viscount said elegantly.
Leila paused and reviewed her options. Okay, creepy vampire just addressed me. Creepy vampire seems to have been stalking me for the last few hours. Creepy vampire happens to be a house guest and a Viscount, so I can't just kick him and run away. Creepy vampire is currently staring at me as though I'm out of my mind because I haven't said anything for the past 3 minutes. Creepy vampire is opening his mouth...
"Um, hi," she squeaked. "I'm so sorry but I'm kind of in a hurry right now so if you'll excuse me I'm sure you don't want to talk to me anyway Grandpa Dracula is so much more interesting than me I'll go get him bye!"
A few corridors later, she finally stopped running. Or rather, she collapsed on the floor, clutching the stitch in her side. You're being paranoid, she told herself. The fact that that's the third run-in you've had with Viscount whatever-his-name-is in the last 24 hours is probably just due to random chance. The fact that Aunt Cruella is currently chasing you and trying to make you wear make-up and horrible gaudy jewelry is a coincidence. Grandma Mina mentioning "great-grandchildren" four times at lunch today has nothing to do with this either. Paranoid is what you are. Obviously paranoi-
She shrieked, spun around, shrieked again when she saw the source of the noise, tried to run, tripped, and found herself in intimate contact with the floor.
"Leila, stop embracing the flagstones and come with me," Cruella said irritably. "The Viscount of Roth wants to see you."
Okay. Mustn't panic. "I'm sorry," she wheezed, "I don't think I could have heard you right. In fact, my ears are buzzing so much, I can't really hear anything at all right now."
"Fine, fine," Cruella said, brushing Leila's protests aside as though they were no more than cobwebs and grabbing her unfortunate niece by the wrist. "Just come with me! I promised we would meet him in half an hour."
"Well," said Leila, quite reasonably, "That's half an hour from now." Plenty of time to find a decent hiding place...
"Don't play dumb with me, young lady!" Cruella said, wagging her finger disapprovingly in Leila's face. "We need to get you cleaned up. Need to give him a good impression. He can't be thinking his future wife is some kind of slouch about her looks, now, can we?"
"Future wife?" Leila parroted, with a mounting feeling of incredulous horror.
"Well, you won't be if you don't hurry up!"
Leila spluttered and yanked her wrist out of her aunt's grasp. "You've got to be kidding me! He's over a hundred years old!"
"That never stopped Mina and your gramps now, did it?"
Leila winced at the mental image. "In case you had forgotten, these aren't the Dark Ages anymore!" she hurled at her aunt. "Arranged marriages are passé!"
"Of course it wouldn't be an arranged marriage, dear," said Cruella, in that incredibly reasonable voice of hers that made Leila want to scream. "It would be a marriage of love! Did you really think we wouldn't force the two of you to fall in love before a wedding took place?"
"We?" Leila repeated, feeling more than ever like a budgerigar.
"The family, of course. They think this is a marvelous idea. As a matter of fact, I know of a few rather decent love potions that I could whip up in a twinkling if you-"
Something snapped inside Leila. "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND! I'm not marrying him!" she screeched. "I would rather die than marry that pompous son-of-a-demon!"
Cruella swelled indignantly. "That is no way to speak about an esteemed and very influential guest!" she cried shrilly.
"What's more," Leila continued, raising her voice to drown out Cruella's high one, "if you keep this up, you might force me to do something I'd rather regret! If my parents were here-"
"Your parents," Cruella exclaimed, "obviously have no concept of how to raise a child! Letting you run around in rags, like a common scullery wench, unbefitting of your royal blood, gallivanting off to Majorca in the midst of a very important family reunion –"
"Maybe," said Leila, with a sudden flash of insight, "they just didn't want to deal with YOU!"
Sanger chose that moment to poke his head around the corner. "Um... Gramps told me to tell you that if you didn't... er, 'shut the bloody hell up'... he was going to set his hounds on you." He squeaked as he found himself on the receiving end of two lethal glares.
"You may tell Grandfather," Leila said proudly, "that I will set the hounds on him if he ever attempts to force me to marry anyone ever again."
With that brilliant rejoinder, she whirled on her heel and marched furiously toward the nearest staircase, fuming with fury.
Well, what else can you fume with? That seems pretty redundant, actually.
Mentally, she snarled at the voices in her head to shut it. Surprisingly, they did, but that left her with nothing to take out her rage on - except a conveniently located window, which she promptly smashed to pieces before continuing to storm up the stairs.
Who in the nine levels of Hell did they think they were, anyway? Did they honestly believe that they could just plan her life, as though she were some sort of - princess in a fairy tale, or something?
The image of Cruella dressed in a fairy godmother costume popped to her mind, causing her to grimace. She could just see the woman, like some distorted Disney cartoon, waving a glittering wand and singing "Bippity! Boppity! Boo!" as she tormented poor, innocent mice and unfortunate pumpkins into becoming cart animals and giant orange carriages while transforming Leila's slippers into glass heels that would probably give her spinal problems for the rest of her life.
Note to self: keep Cruella away from magic wands and fairy godmother costumes at all costs.
Leila had, by this point, climbed nearly to the top of the tower. It was only then that she realized that she had, effectively, trapped herself. If her aunt, or – heaven help her – the Viscount of Roth decided to come after her up here, there would be no place to hide.
So hopefully they would not decide to come after her. Aunt Cruella was rather bulky and disliked having to heave herself up staircases, and as for the viscount - well, he was old, so he probably had arthritis and wouldn't think climbing the steps worth the effort! With this bracing thought in mind, she stepped forward and pushed open the balcony door.
It was only then - when she came face to face with the very last person she wanted to see - that she remembered vampires did not get arthritis.
"Aha!" said the Viscount brightly. "You have an excellent view up here. I was just enjoying it. Your aunt told me you would be coming up, but I had no idea it would be so soon."
"Did she?" Leila repeated faintly, fighting the desire to jump backwards and slam the door in the Viscount's face. It was just her luck that the one place where she had chosen to hide was the same place that Cruella had been dragging her...
Okay, maybe she should have seen that coming. After all, they had been next to that staircase when she chose to storm up it. And Cruella hadn'tso much as tried to follow Leila.
But really, Leila thought, if my life were a story, I would totally believe this was a plot device contrived by the author so she could get to bed on time.
"I suppose your aunt has already informed you of my proposal."
All right. Time to put an end to this madness.
"Yes, actually," she said in a tone that was almost bordering on rude. "And she left me with the unpleasant task of conferring my answer. Which happens to be: no way in the nine levels of Hell."
"Ah yes," the Viscount said, looking only momentarily nonplussed. "I have heard that it is the habit of every demure young woman to refuse a proposal so as not to seem too eager. But you do not need to do so in my case; this is the modern era, after all."
"You could've fooled me," Leila muttered. She wondered, briefly, if the Viscount had been reading Pride and Prejudice lately, as he was beginning to sound suspiciously like Mr. Collins.
Or maybe he was just stupid.
"I don't think you get it," she said, backing up even further. "I don't-"
"Of course, you will be given time to adjust to the idea. We would not get married for another few months, after all."
"Months?!" Leila exclaimed. "Oh, yes, twelve weeks is plenty of time to grow accustomed to the idea of being forced into marriage with someone you've met a week ago!"
"I'm so glad you agree," said the Viscount with what he evidently believed was a charming smile, stepping closer. Leila shrieked and scrambled backward one last time.
She didn't mean to fall.
She really didn't.
In her defense, it was windy at the top of the tower. Great gusts of air, as a matter of fact, were whipping her hair into her eyes at that moment, impairing her visibility. She leaned away from the Viscount, not realizing how close she was to the edge...
The wind did the rest of the work.
A shriek and she was falling
Wind whistling in her ears
As death approached with swift certainty -
Hey, she thought dazedly as she continued to fall, that actually isn't bad poetr– OOMPH!
Water, she discovered, could actually be quite painful if you hit it after a 100-foot drop. Never mind that vampires couldn't die (at least, not by means that would normally be fatal to a human). They still had nerves. And hers were currently screaming in agony from her spectacular belly flop as she floundered in water that had to be over twenty feet deep.
"I'll save you!" the Viscount declared with pompous flair, preparing to jump.
"Lee, grab hold of this," Sanger called from firm ground, throwing her a rope. She found herself being towed to shore – just as a splash behind her told her the Viscount had made an undignified landing in the center of the same lake.
"Thanks," she told her cousin.
The hounds, by this point, were creating an almighty racket. Due to a bizarre construction error that involved misread instructions and a very confused ex-werewolf at the wheel of a bulldozer, the dogs were currently kept kenneled at the edge of the lake. Leila spotted them slavering at the bars of their cage, and a slow, almost evil smile crossed her face. In one fluid motion (which she hoped would never be traced back to her later), she flicked the latch of their door open and gestured toward the Viscount, who was still floundering in the water.
"Do you think he got the idea?" Leila muttered to Sanger, as the two watched the ground from Sanger's bedroom window. The Viscount, still dripping and bedraggled, made his way to the coach, and was soon gone from sight.
"Maybe, but I wouldn't count on it. He didn't look all that bright..." Sanger muttered in reply.
"Leila! Your grandfather would like to see you!" Aunt Cruella exclaimed, smiling with vindictive amusement as she swooped down upon her niece. She smirked as she ushered Leila into Count Dracula's study. "He seems rather... displeased."
Mina was already sitting in the study, slightly behind Dracula. Both gave her disapproving stares as she entered the room, although she thought she saw Mina wink at her slightly when Cruella left the room.
"Do you realize just what you have done?" her grandfather inquired coldly.
"Er... not really?" There was no use trying making excuses to the head of the family; all the young vampires had learned that long ago.
"You have offended a very esteemed lord who has helped me in the past. You also released my prized bloodhounds from their kennels without my permission. I don't suppose you have any idea how long it took to return them to their cages?"
"A long time?" Leila hazarded.
"About five minutes," Mina mouthed over her husband's shoulder.
"As punishment," Grandpa Drac continued, tapping his fingers together sternly, "you will not be attending any family dinners until Christmas."
Leila tried to look sad. She really did. If she was crossing her fingers behind her back the whole time, well, who was to know?
"In addition," the Count continued, "You will buy me the strongest pair of industrial-strength earmuffs you can find, out of your own pocket money, and present them to me at Yuletide."
Leila froze, staring at her grandfather. He looked as stoic and serious as ever as he glared down at her, black eyebrows furrowed.
He had not just made a joke. It was impossible.
"Have I made myself clear?"
"Perfectly," Leila squeaked.
"Then get out," Dracula said, "and make sure I am not bothered by your presence for at least the next year, or you will not be so lucky again."
Once outside, Leila let out her breath in a whoosh. She could not quite believe her luck. She had escaped incredibly lightly, and she knew it.
"Oh, Lily-poo!" Felix called, intercepting her on the stairs. "Someone's here to see you!"
"Do not butcher my name like that again, or you will find your rear end in intimate contact with the inhabitants of Grandfather's kennel. They obey me quite well, you know," Leila said smugly.
"Touchy," Felix grumbled, as he slouched away.
"It's 'touché' actually," Leila remarked, but she let the matter drop. Honestly, there was no helping Felix at times. Cautiously, she began making her way to the palace entrance. The Viscount could not have returned... could he?
Voices reached her before she rounded the corner.
"Where is she?"
"I hope she likes it..."
She grinned, recognizing the speakers instantly, and burst into the room. "Mum! Dad!"
The next few seconds were utterly too emotional for Leila's liking, and she started to remember why she had been so happy to see her parents leave two weeks ago, but in truth, the reunion did not bother her as much as it might have. Still, she grumbled slightly when her mother hugged her for the sixth time, said in a misty voice, "Oh, my little Leila is growing up!" and tried to brush Leila's hair out of her eyes. Really, there was no need for that.
"How was Majorca?" she asked, stepping subtly out of range of her mother's arm.
"Rained the whole time. You would have hated it. A week cooped up with your ill aunt Gertrude – almost drove your poor parents bonkers, to tell the truth."
"You were gone for two weeks," Leila pointed out. Her heart sank as her parents exchanged looks. So they had been back for a whole week, and they had not bothered to come get her?
"Well, actually –" Xavier began.
"I was just going to say, Lee, why not come out front with me? There's something you might want to see."
"Don't tell me," Leila said with a sigh, "you haven't gotten a new television aga-"
Her jaw dropped.
Parked in the middle of the luxurious stone driveway that bordered Grandpa Dracula's castle was a car. Not just any old vehicle, but a shiny, sapphire convertible.
"Well, what do you think?" asked Xavier. "Took us a few days to get the purchase sorted out, more like a week actually..."
Leila was not really listening. "It's perfect!" she exclaimed, staring at the car in awe. She was not quite so absorbed that she failed to notice the reactions of other residents of the castle. She smiled wickedly as she spotted Sanger eyeing the new convertible with longing. Well, perhaps she would let him try it after a few days. He had fished her out of the pond, after all.
But for now, she thought, as she got into the driver's seat and her dad explained how to use the new controls, for now, it's mine.
"Leila!" Sanger called through the door to her room, some two days later, "you're going to be late for lunch!"
She ignored the voice, scribbling frantically as she tried to finish the page. Sanger tried again:
"Gran's serving truffles and blood croissants."
"I'm going to eat them all if you don't come out!"
"In a minute!" Leila shouted. Setting down her quill, she glanced at the first page of her manuscript and grinned.
Once upon a time, she read, there was a beautiful princess who lived in a far-off castle. One day when her parents were on vacation, her old aunt decided it was high time for the princess to get married. However, the princess wasn't very pleased with the idea...