****Dedicated to Tink because she loved this part when she beta'd it and for putting up with me being almost nonexistent the past few months while I toiled on this.  Thank you for your understanding, my friend.

< > indicates thoughts and such.
 

Take Your Time  ~ 30 ~

1860

It had been a long train ride and Willow was getting antsy.  While it was exciting riding in the fairly new steam train, the novelty quickly wore off as the hours ticked by.  It was better than stagecoach by far, but she simply wanted to get to her destination and sit down at the card table.

Willow had few things that made her happy anymore, or at least allowed her to forget her problems.  She had her music--Spike's destruction of her first guitar couldn't quell her love for the instrument--she had her time with The Rom, and she had poker.  In just a few hours, she would be happily sitting in a smoke-filled room across from perfect strangers, hopefully relieving them of some of their cash.

That was pretty much Willow's life now.  Poker was how she made her money, and it kept her in a very good lifestyle.  When she'd had to once again flee from Spike, Willow had headed back to the continent without thinking.  She needed a place where she could relax and feel safe while she decided what to do.  Fortunately, she only had to spend a few months with the Rom before she felt emotionally strong enough to return to England.

Actually, Willow had traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, when she'd first come back and stayed there for several months.  She'd chosen it for several reasons, not the least of which being that she'd always wanted to explore the historical northern city.  The fact that Spike had once told her that he and Angelus had never gone there was just an added bonus.

Edinburgh was where Willow first found her way into the more private world of poker.  She no longer had to play in smoky rooms in the back of seedy taverns because now she was invited to fine houses, manors, and even the occasional castle.  These games were by invitation only and therefore Willow could ensure that she would never find herself accidentally sitting at a table across from Spike.  It wasn't his scene anyway; he preferred the seedier side of poker.  Besides if he were looking for her, he would no doubt head for the Rom first, which was another reason why she'd had to leave them to return to the British Isles.

After a while, Willow had grown tired of the cold, wet weather, even by British standards, and left Scotland.  Making her way south, she moved to a cozy cottage in a small village outside Bath, which by now had become the playground of the more fashionable members of English society.  Since Bath was considered the liveliest spot for gambling in all of England, it just seemed natural for Willow to live nearby.  She would occasionally venture into the decadent town from her peaceful, nearby village to find a game.  It was a rare occurrence though, because she never had a shortage of invitations to place elsewhere.  As a result, she traveled quite a bit, often from one game to the next, and was rarely at her own home.

The game she was heading to now was some six hours away by train.  It was being held away from the city by a well-off gentleman she 'd played with and beaten before, so she was looking forward to it.  It was an all-weekend affair since it was at his country estate, and it was going to be a nice change of pace for Willow.  <For Violet Jones!> she reminded herself.  Soon after leaving the Romany, Willow had adopted a new pseudonym, just to be on the safe side.  Violet Jones was the first one that had come to her, and it made her giggle...Rose Smith, AKA Violet Jones.  She liked it and had been using it ever since.

Violet Jones was a widow, a very well to-do young widow, who was slowly gaining a reputation amongst the upper echelons of the gambling community.  She was respected by most, feared by some, and even desired by a few others, but she always tried her best to stay out of the limelight in order to remain hidden from Spike.  She was far from ready to return to her own time in Sunnydale, and he was going to have to wait until she let herself be found.  Willow was calling the shots now.

***

They had been playing all day, and Willow was doing well.  The other players were good, but she was a little disappointed that few of them offered little more than a slight challenge.  As usual, those she'd not played with before underestimated her at first, and in the end the gentlemen paid dearly for it.  It wasn't that she was the only good female poker player in Britain, but they were few and far between.  It was a man's game...a gentleman's game, although more often than not one was more likely to be seated across from a crook than a gentleman.  It was time's like those--when she found herself seated at a table with a dishonest player--that she was actually thankful for all of the little tricks that Spike had taught her.  Although she never cheated to actually win anymore, she wasn't against cheating to make things fair.  Every time Willow saw another player palm an ace, use a marked card, or deal off the bottom of the deck, she used her own considerable talents at deception to even the playing field.  It was not the way she preferred to win, however.

That was one of the reasons she liked these private games, even if her opponents weren't much of a threat.  Games like this one were usually sponsored by wealthy men with too much time on their hands that liked to associate with great players, even though they were rarely more than adequate players themselves.  'If you can't be the best, then at least surround yourself with the best,' seemed to be their motto.  It was rare to find a cheater at these more exclusive kinds of events because if they were ever caught, the news would quickly spread and they'd find themselves lacking in people to play with, at least in the same social circle.

Already after a day's worth of play, several players had dropped out due to lack of funds.  The five original tables were now pared down to three.  The plan was to play until there was one clear winner, until everyone had called it quits, or until they ran out of time and had to leave the tranquil estate the following evening.  But for now, it was almost dinnertime, and Willow was relieved to be able to push away from the table and get some fresh air.  She would have only the hour or so before dinner to herself because the game would resume even before the servants could clear away the dessert plates.

Willow climbed the enormous staircase and made several twists and turns, hoping that she remembered the correct way to her room.  She seemed to have this wing of the enormous Tudor manor to herself--one of the advantages of being the only woman, she supposed.  At times like these though, she welcomed the solitude.  Eventually finding her way, Willow unlocked the door and entered her chambers.  It was a beautiful room, perhaps the most opulent she'd ever had the pleasure to stay in, but she had spent little time in it so far.  Only short breaks were taken to freshen up and eat.  They were here to play cards, not for a holiday.  In spite of that, Willow threw open the glass doors and stepped out on to her private balcony...her favorite part of the room.  As she stared out onto the lush, green English countryside, she thought she would love to come back to the area again someday.  The rolling hills were so peaceful and serene.

"Perhaps I should buy a small place out here myself.  It's not like I can stay in London much for the next thirty years since Drusilla should be turned any time now and Spike will be ready to leave," she reminded herself reluctantly.  Willow took a seat and closed her eyes, letting the song of the evening crickets relax her mind, body, and soul.  There was a lot of card playing left to be done, and while she may not be the big winner, she refused to leave the table with less than she'd come in with.

Spike.  The name brought up so many images and thoughts, so many mixed feelings.  She hadn't seen or heard from him since 'the incident' almost five years ago.  Willow had long ago realized what a shock it must have been for Spike to see his future lover that night when she wasn't even supposed to have been in London for another few years.  All Willow could figure was that Drusilla and her family must have been visiting relatives in the area.  Considering the odd turn of events, Willow grudgingly understood his reaction.  She had interfered, after all.  Maybe she hadn't handled it the best way, but her intentions had been good.  Willow had only been thinking about his future happiness with Drusilla when she'd kept him from following the young girl.  In her opinion, his violent reaction was uncalled for.  He'd betrayed her, yet again, and savagely bit her.  More important than any physical pain that he'd inflicted upon her though, was how insignificant, used, and incredibly stupid he'd made her feel.  If it weren't for the fact that sooner or later they would have to meet up in order to go home, Willow told herself she could quite happily never see his pale face again.

Unfortunately, no matter how much his words had hurt, some of what he'd said was true.  Willow had almost overlooked what he was for a while.  It wasn't that she'd forgotten that Spike was a vampire.  How could she when his feeding from her was such an integral part of their lovemaking?  What she had managed to overlook however were some of the darker sides of his demonic nature that he'd obviously been suppressing--the mercurial mood swings, the instinct to act, often violently, on his passions rather than to think things through, and perhaps even a need for ultimate control.  She knew she shouldn't consider them personality flaws so much as side effects of being a vampire, but it was still difficult for her forgive him.  Since then, Willow had even wondered what would have happened if she'd stayed instead of running away after he'd attacked her.  Now, she'd never know if Spike would have apologized after he'd had a chance to cool down.  Nevertheless, while her new understanding did help to quench her anger some, it did nothing to lessen the pain.  Nothing would ever be the same again.  The trust had been broken.

He'd been correct about the Rom as well.  They didn't share their secrets or their way of life easily.  It had taken her nearly a year just to be invited to sit around their fire.  Add to that the language barriers and the Rom's natural mistrust of all Gaje, or non-gypsies, and it meant that Willow hadn't even come close to learning the restoration spell during the few years she'd spent with them.  Fortunately, Willow was in no hurry.  She was content just to have finally been accepted into the tightly-knit group, given a Rom name, the chance to learn their unique language, and perhaps best of all, the gift of music.  The rest could wait.  It would have to wait, in fact, since Willow had no intention of returning to 1998 until after she was sure that Angelus was once again cursed with his soul in 1898.  She just had to hope that Spike would keep his promise not to harm the Irish vampire, just as Willow fully intended to keep her pledge to help the him get the love of his unlife, in spite of what had happened between them.  In her heart, she was sure that Spike would hold up his end of the bargain, too.  After all, her strategy was the most logical and guaranteed the best chance of Spike ending up with the Drusilla he'd fallen in love.  Of course, Willow never had the opportunity to fully explain her plan to him before she'd fled, and as a result, Spike had no idea that they weren't going to go home within days of Drusilla becoming a vampire.  <He'll start looking for me again soon...>

<Quit thinking about him, Willow!> she berated herself.  <You need to focus on the game.>  Willow closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, letting her mind picture a beautiful waterfall that she'd discovered one day while taking a walk when she was with the Rom.  She'd spent a wonderful day in solitude there, swimming, reading, and dozing to the sounds of the cascading water.  Ever since that glorious day, she'd used it has her 'happy place'.  Whenever she needed to increase her concentration or clear her mind, that was were her thoughts would go.  After a few minutes of this, Willow felt refreshed and quickly got ready for dinner.

***

After dinner, Willow couldn't resist one last look at the stars from her private balcony before she returned to the gaming room.  As she took her seat at the table, the petite gambler was pleased to note that she wasn't the last one in.  The gentleman who had sat across from her was nowhere to be seen.  Willow wondered if the stress had been too much for him.  Now that she thought about it, she hadn't seen the rather nervous younger man at the dinner table either.

She and the remaining two gentlemen used their time waiting to verify their moneys, and then she made polite small talk with the older gentleman on her right--weather, the state of the colonies, the health of Queen Victoria, the usual chit chat.  Finally, their host, Mr. Simms, who also happened to be one of the first players to bow out, interrupted.

"Mr. Richards will no longer be playing," the robust, red-cheeked man informed them.  "He was sitting in for his employer who was delayed on business, but the gentleman is here now and wishes to take his rightful place at the table.  I hope that is satisfactory?"

It wasn't the norm, but as it was a gentleman's game and the host's request, they all agreed.

"Jolly good show," the host remarked, obviously relieved.  "Then, may I introduce Angelus Connellan."

Willow's heart stopped.  She was certain of it.  The polite smile she was wearing faded, quickly replaced by a look of complete and utter horrified shock.  <No!  It can't be!  Please let it be anyone else...please!> she screamed internally.  Once again Willow found herself praying in vain that it wouldn't be 'her' Angelus, even though she somehow knew it was.  The redhead had decided long ago that it was inevitable that they would meet again before she was able to return home, but she'd refused to think about it too much, let alone plan for such a reunion.  Denial.  That was the only word for the way she'd been living for years now, and fate had just delivered one hell of a wake up call, threatening to push her into a state of panic.

Willows eyes dropped to her hands as a figure stepped into view on her left and introductions were started.  Suddenly wishing she had started smoking so she had some way to release her anxiety, she instead started shuffling the cards.  Unfortunately, her hands were trembling and the cards suddenly seemed as slippery as soap.

"Mr. Connellan," Willow heard the host begin, but his voice seemed miles away, muffled by the sound of her own hammering heart.  "May I introduce Lord Kennsington."

"It's an honor ta be in the company of such a distinguished servant of Her Majesty, me Lord," a deep voice replied in a familiar Irish lilt.

At that moment, Willow dropped the few remaining cards she had been shuffling, unmindful of the fact that most had already slipped from her fingers to pile haphazardly before her.  She could feel several sets of eyes upon her but only one pair mattered.  The deep sable eyes that she still saw in her dreams were piercing her with a sharpness that hardly seemed possible.

Luckily, the host went on, skipping to the player on her left.  "And may I introduce Alistair Fontaine.  He owns several banks in London, as well as Birmingham and Manchester, so do not be surprised if he is actually playing with your money!" the host joked.

Willow couldn't force herself to even smile, let alone laugh, at the joke she'd already heard a dozen times that day, but she could hear the others respond as expected, including Angelus.  All she could think was, <There goes my plan...>

"Well, Mr. Fontaine, I can only hope that you won't hold it against me if ya have to make a sizable transfer from yer account to mine," the vampire returned good-naturedly.

Willow was in a daze, knowing that she was going to have to lift her eyes from the table to look at the soulless man she'd once loved.  Polite conversation was still going on around her, but as a pause came, she affixed what she hoped was an indifferent look on her face and took a deep breath.

"And finally, I have the pleasure to introduce you to Mrs. Violet Jones.  If she does not take all of your money, she will surely steal your heart."

"Her beauty has already halted its beating.  Mrs. *Jones*, is it?" the velvety voice purred, daring her to look at its source.

Willow's ageless emerald eyes rose slowly from the careless pile of cards in front of her and first came across his offered hand.  Before she could stop herself, she placed her own hand in his, as propriety expected.  Her gaze remained intent on the clasped fingers, but it turned out that she would have to look no further to see the face of the man--the demon--who stood next to her.  He lowered his devilishly smiling face to her proffered hand and brushed his cold lips lightly across her bare skin.  Her eyes remained glued to that spot where his mouth met her flesh, never rising to meet his.  As the color seeped from her face, the redhead gripped the table sharply with her other hand to stop from swaying while she awaited his reaction.

"It's a pleasure, Mrs. Jones," he said in a sickeningly sweet tone, releasing Willow's hand as he took the available seat across from hers.

Willow could only offer a slight nod in response as she tried to reign in her stampeding emotions.  Conversation resumed as the others filled Angelus in on the type of poker they'd been playing, but it all flew by the redhead unheard.  Cards were shuffled, cigars were lit, hands were dealt, and still Willow hadn't uttered a sound, nor had she even ventured a glance away from the safety of the felt-covered table and her cards.  Three hands were played before Willow could speak.  In those three hands, she'd lost a considerable amount of money, making mistakes that any novice could avoid.  It wasn't until she heard the 'clucking' sound from across the table that she snapped out of it.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk..." Angelus taunted.  "I'd heard so much about the fiery redhead with the face of an angel who was a demon at the poker table, that I must be admittin' that I'm a wee bit disappointed, Mrs. Jones."

Willow's head popped up as she finally realized she was ruining her reputation as an expert gambler.  Try as she might though, she couldn't look at him.  Instead, her gaze traveled around the table, settling upon each of the other gentleman and even the deck that Angelus was shuffling, anything but his face.

"My apologies, Mr. Connelly," she replied, purposely erring on his name.  It wasn't very ladylike but either was poker.  "I'm afraid that the Beef Wellington was a tad too heavy for me and has put me a bit off my game.  If you would be so kind as to grant me a few minutes to quell my delicate stomach, then I can promise you my best game."

Without waiting for a reply or for the gentlemen to stand, she rose quickly and headed for the nearest door.  Unfortunately, it was subtly blocked by two large men--men whom she could tell were vampires.

"Great, he brought the whole happy vamp family with him tonight," she mumbled and quickly changed direction toward the doors to the garden.  She knew escape was useless, but damned if she were going to sit across from him and smile as he won all her money.  She may not make it through the night unscathed physically, but she was determined that Angelus wouldn't make it through the night unscathed financially.

She pushed aside the heavy royal-blue drapes and threw open the doors to the large moon-flooded courtyard.  Instantly, several vampires appeared from behind various garden statues and ornamental bushes that were shaped to resemble various animals.  Since the demons made no move to advance on her, it was apparent that they were there only to make sure that she didn't try to escape.  With a heavy heart, Willow walked to the intricately carved stone railing that divided the courtyard from the gardens.  <Calm down, Willow.  Breathe...maybe he doesn't even recognize you!>

Angelus closed the double doors after himself and with a dismissive jerk of his head to the other vampires, he ensured their privacy.  As she did decades before on the cliff in Galway, Willow felt, rather than heard, Angelus step out into the night behind her.  The air was once again filled with electricity, running up and down her spine like a thousand tiny needles.  Having forced himself to stay back and remain silent for a moment, Angelus was rewarded for his patience with the shudder that rippled through Willow's small frame.

"You aren't tryin' ta leave in the middle of the game, are ya, me love?" he finally asked.  "That wouldn't be very ladylike."

Willow was almost relieved to hear him speak, finding the silence more frightening than his menacing manner.  "As if I could leave.  You have the whole estate surrounded by your spawn, don't you?" she responded bravely as she continued to look out onto the star-lit expanse of lawn.

"Ya can't be blamin' me fer wantin' ta be prepared," Angelus chuckled, allowing himself to draw nearer to his goal.  "Not when there's so much ta be lost or won this weekend."  The vampire stopped behind the redhead, barely resisting the desire to grab her and drag her away that very moment.  However, he had plans that would require even more self-control over the next couple of days.

Even with her eyes closed, Willow sensed him behind her, standing so close she could feel the slightest brush of his lips across the tiny hairs on her lobe.  Opening her lids, she wrapped her arms around herself and took a step away. She knew it wouldn't make any difference in the end because he would just encroach on her again, but her mind was screaming at her to run.  She didn't know if she could go through this again, seeing him, listening to his silken voice as he tried to weave a destructive path through her sanity.  <God help me...>  It was hard enough the last short time they were together.  Decades may have passed since then, but she knew it would be even more difficult this time around.  Her weeks with Spike had made things more complicated because now she knew exactly what she'd been missing...how a man could make her feel...even what a soulless vampire could make her feel. <But look how that ended!  Besides, he's not Spike!  No...he's Angelus...>

"Did ya miss me, my flower?" Angelus asked, interrupting her thoughts.  "It's been a long time, too long since ya escaped me all those years ago."  When Willow didn't answer, he continued in a voice filled with longing.  "I missed ya, Rose.  I know ya don't believe me, but I did.  All the years we lost...years ya could have been mine."

Willow shook her head.  She did not want to hear his words--words that, coming from anyone else or even from Angelus a century earlier while he was still alive, would have been romantic.  Coming from the demon who hovered behind her, they only spoke of unfulfilled pain and torment.
Her stubbornness pleased Angelus and brought an anticipatory smile to his face.  Her behavior would only make it that more delicious when he broke her.

"Turn around," Angelus instructed firmly.  Although his words were obviously meant as more than a request, the sensually compelling tone of his voice frightened her much more than any tersely barked order ever could.

Instead of attempting to fight him when she was obviously on his territory, Willow decided she would try to appear as unaffected and unafraid as possible.  She turned slowly, allowing her eyes to find his for the first time.

"Angelus..." was all she managed to say as the words of her hastily prepared speech died on her lips at the sight of him.

She was right.  After all this time, it hadn't gotten any easier.  In all honesty, it was worse.  With the passing years, he'd become even more handsome than she remembered.  Gone was the long, loose hair and mustache that she'd mocked at their last meeting.  His dark hair, while still longer than the soulful Angel would wear it, was short enough that it actually accentuated his face without hiding it, giving him a bit of boyish charm.  It was only the cruel twist to his lips that didn't remind her of the man with the angelic face that she'd known in Galway.

"I see ya have learned at least one lesson from our past meetin's, Rose," Angelus sneered, pleased with both her obedience and her discernable reaction to seeing him again.  "If ya fight me, ya will only get hurt worse."

Willow held her ground even though she was only one step away from the demon.  She straightened her shoulders, willing her arms to slide down to her sides, but the move left her feeling cold and unprotected without their warmth to reassure her.

Still, even though she didn't feel the slightest bit courageous, she spoke bravely.  "I thought that was the whole point, Angelus...to hurt me...make me scream..."

Angelus bridged the small physical gap between them as his hand snaked out to catch a fallen tendril of coppery hair, only to twist it around a long, cold finger.

"Ah, patience, me love.  It seems we truly do have an eternity for lessons...and pain..."  As he wound her tresses around his digit, she was slowly pulled closer to him until her face was only inches from his.  "...and pleasure..." he continued in a husky growl, moving his mouth down to barely graze her jaw line.  "But only tonight ta be takin' these fools fer all they have," he murmured in her ear, then gradually pulled away to gauge her reaction.

Willow shook her head slowly, not fully believing his audacity.  "You mean you expect me to sit across that table from you and play cards, knowing that when it's over you plan to...to...hurt me?"

"I always knew ya were a smart wee thing," the vampire said with the barest hint of a smile.  He kept her entrapped by her own hair while the back of his free hand brushed her cheek.  "So, it appears as if it will be ta yer advantage to play well.  I don't suppose ya'd be interested in a small side wager, now would ya?  Just ta make it a bit more excitin'?"

<I don't think I can take any more excitement in this lifetime!> she thought over the sound of her blood pounding in her ears.  "No!  I...wouldn't," the redhead ground out through clenched teeth as she started painstakingly unwrapping her hair from his hand.

Angelus made no move to stop her, enjoying the look of determination on her face as she tried to disengage herself without having to physically come in contact with him.

"Yer shakin', me love.  I'm flattered that I have such an effect on ya still, after all these years," he chuckled, purposely flexing his fingers in a manner that made it nearly impossible for her to free herself without touching him.

In exasperation, Willow finally grabbed his hand and used both of hers to unwind her hair.  When she was free, she pulled away from the vampire and started for the doors, but he grabbed her by the arm, stopping her escape.

"Give it some thought, me Rose.  Ya'll find I'm a very reasonable man."

"Don't you mean *demon*, Angelus?" was her flippant response.  With a quick snap of her arm, she was easily able to break free from his grip.  While this was not the time to show him some of her newer self-defense moves, which she doubted would do much good against his supernatural strength anyway, Willow was not about to let him handle her like a piece of baggage.  "And the name is Violet," she added sternly.

Angelus chuckled and let her go, only to have his hand drift down to the small of her back, escorting her toward the doors.

Willow stiffened under his touch, trying to escape the eerie sensations that his icy fingers sent throughout her body, but he only increased the pressure as he led her back to their table.  Suddenly she was reliving the night over a century ago when she and Angelus had shared a horse, coming back from the fog-entrenched cliffs.  She'd tried so hard not to relax against him then, but she'd eventually surrendered, leaning back against his broad chest.  They'd almost kissed that night, and on the rare occasions since then that Willow allowed herself to think about her lost moments with the Irishman, she wondered if a kiss could have changed anything...or even everything.

Irritated with herself for her trip down memory lane, Willow squared her jaw and walked quickly back to their table.  Ignoring the stares of the men in the room, she pretended as if nothing had happened between them, even as Angelus gallantly pulled her chair out for her.  When he scooted the seat back beneath her, Willow felt his face in her hair.  She could have sworn she heard a sharp intake of breath, like he were devouring her scent, but it'd happened so quickly that she couldn't be sure.  From the lack of reaction from the others at the table, Willow decided that either no one else had noticed his odd behavior or that she'd simply imagined it.

"Are you well, Mrs. Jones?" Lord Kennsington asked politely, taking in her pale appearance.

Willow forced a bright smile.  "Yes, thank you.  The air did wonders, I do believe, and I thank you all for your patience."

As the two other men told her to think nothing of it, Willow could only hear Angelus's voice.  "A creature as beautiful as yerself is always worth waitin' fer."

If the two other men suspected, and rightly so, that the seemingly young man and woman had an intertwined past, they kept it to themselves.  It was plainly obvious after only a few hands that the couple were not working together in some sort of scheme to bilk the others of their money.  Instead, it was almost as if the other two players weren't even there.  They were still quickly losing their money to either one, but the man and woman played with such an intensity, that it appeared as if much more than money was at stake.

After almost four more hours of intense card playing, the other two men pushed away from the table.  They were exhausted and broke as most of the money they'd brought with them was now heaped before either the dark-haired man or the redheaded woman.  Seeing that only Angelus and herself remained, Willow felt the panic begin to rise within her again.  She was safe while she was at the gaming table.  It was neutral territory, and she could more than hold her own.  It had only been through the use of relaxation techniques and sheer willpower that she'd been able to remain calm up to this point.  She'd still made some silly blunders and had not played her best, but even with her game being off, she was easily a match for the two breathing men at the table.  It was the one that didn't breathe that scared her.

Angelus was a truly brilliant player, ruthless and calculating.  His handsome visage hadn't slipped once.  On the occasions that he actually lost a hand, he still wore the same, enigmatic half-smile.  The only exception was when he was trying to bluff or mislead his fellow players, but even then, the dark vampire never hinted at what he really was.  Willow wasn't fooled though, and now that she could see the end coming, she started grasping at straws.

"Please, Lord Kennsington, Mr. Fontaine, I would be honored if you would allow me to sponsor you for a few more hands.  You're both such delightful company, and I'm sure that you have only been suffering some bad luck this evening--"

"I'm beginnin' ta think the lady is afraid ta be alone with me, gentleman," Angelus interrupted jovially, easily slipping into a charming demeanor.  "But, as it appears that our table is the last one playin' fer the night, perhaps we should retire.  The two of us will finish this tomorrow, Mrs. Jones.  You appear as if ya could use some rest anyway."

"You are too kind, Mr. *Connelly*."

Without waiting for anyone to pull the chair out for her, Willow jumped up, gathered her money, and took it to the designated banker to count and keep safe until the next day's play.  After signing for her winnings, she bid the remaining gentleman a hasty goodnight and scurried out of the game room and up the stairs to the relative safety of her own quarters.  Closing and then locking the door, she sighed in relief.

Willow paced the floors of her room for over an hour after ensuring that the doors to both the hallway and the balcony were secure.  She had even gone so far as to push a chair in front of the French doors that led outside, just in case.  The redhead had no misconceptions that it would keep him out if he wanted in, but at least she would hear him coming.  The heavy, solid-oak door that led to the hallway was locked tight from the inside, and she felt better knowing that the only way he would be coming through that door was with a battering ram...a very noisy, attention-attracting battering ram.

"How could I be so stupid?" she demanded of herself as she continued pacing.  "Traveling all the way out here...nowhere to go...nowhere to hide..."

Willow knew she was being hard on herself.  She'd made every effort to ensure her safety before she agreed to this particular poker weekend, just as she had many times before.  She knew the host quite well, having played with him on several previous occasions, and she'd even gone so far as to inquire as to the other players.  She'd thought she was safe and that she'd thought of everything, but she was wrong.  This error was going to be a very costly one, and Willow knew it.

As Willow continued to wear a path in the imported Persian rug, she finally took the time to wonder how this had all come about.  Angelus was certainly not surprised to find her at the table, and considering the reinforcements he'd brought with him, as well as the apparent accomplice that had sat in at her table for the first day, it was obvious that it had been planned and planned well.  He had gone to a lot of trouble to either get her here or to make sure that she didn't escape him, or both.

Angelus.  If the mere idea of Spike confused her, the thought of Angelus was enough to throw her into sheer chaos.  Even after all this time and all that had occurred during those long years, Angelus could still effect her.  The very knowledge that a man she'd only known for a few short months, and man that would one day be her best friend's lover could have her in such emotional anarchy, made Willow hate her weaknesses where matters of the heart were concerned.  How could she let herself fall in love with him, even if she'd never actually admitted it to him?  And now that he was this most evil of vampires, a thing to despise and destroy, why was she still confused?  <It's Spike's fault,> she told herself.  He'd proven to her that soulless vampires were capable of being gentle, caring, and if nothing else, at least friendly...for a short time, anyway.  A seed of false hope had been planted, her time with Spike nurturing it along until it established strong roots that couldn't be easily weeded away.  Even Spike's treachery had, apparently, not killed it entirely.

<Geesh! Could you be more pathetic, Willow?  It was a century ago and that man is dead!> she thought.  "Besides, you didn't really love him.  It was just a crush," Willow said aloud, trying to convince herself.  "A schoolgirl infatuation...just like the one's you had on John Cusack and Mulder from the X-Files!"  <Just a childish crush...just a childish crush...> became her new mantra as she paced the floor.

Eventually, the physically and mentally exhausted time traveler collapsed on the bed, still fully clothed.  After an hour or so of tossing and turning, she fell into a fitful sleep.

She either had several dreams that night or one very jumbled one--she wasn't quite sure which--all centering on Angelus, of course.  She'd remember only tidbits of it upon awakening, although if they were anything like her other ones, Willow would find that if she concentrated hard enough, she could remember them in more detail.  However, these were not dreams she'd want to remember.  They were nightmares, full of images of angry vampires, blood, and pain.

In the final images before she woke, however, there was little violence, and that made it the most terrifying one of all.  She saw herself surrendering to Angelus, in every way possible, and it was the feeling of his entering her, stealing the virginity that she'd guarded for so long, that brought her wide awake with a start.

Willow abruptly sat up in bed, the name 'Angelus' escaping her lips with a strangled cry.  She quickly looked down at herself to make sure that she was fully clothed and that it was, in fact, only a dream in which she had been writhing beneath the dark vampire so wantonly, taking pleasure in the feel of his skin against hers, his mouth capturing hers, moving her body in unison with his...

"Ya seem to like sayin' me name, me little flower," a voice came from the direction of the balcony doors.  "And from the dream ya seemed to be havin', I'm again flattered."

Even as she reflexively jumped in the opposite direction, Willow's eyes darted toward the sound of the voice.  The handsome vampire was lounging comfortably in the large armchair that she'd pushed in front of the apparently still-locked, glass-paneled balcony doors.

"What are you doing here?" the shaken woman asked with an equally trembling voice.  "How'd you get in?"

The vampire didn't answer immediately.  He seemed busy with a large book that was resting on his lap.  Her eyes narrowed, both in anger at his ignoring her questions and in confusion as she tried to figure out what he was doing in the sparsely lit room.

"Get out or I'll scream!" she barked, the threat momentarily stopping his intense concentration on the book that balanced upon his legs.

"Scream if ya like, but no one'll hear ya.  Yer the only one in this wing, after all."  He brought his finger to his mouth in a mocking imitation of deep thought.  "As to why I'm here, ya already know the answer to that.  As for how...."  For an answer he simply held up a large key and smiled smugly.  After a brief moment of intense scrutiny that made Willow feel as if she were not only standing before him naked, but also that he had a personal window into her soul, he returned his attention to the book on his lap as if there were nothing odd about him entering a woman's quarters without permission.

Willow fidgeted nervously next to the bed as she tried to figure out what to do.  Looking about the room for a weapon, she quickly noted that the fire poker had mysteriously vanished, leaving her only small vases and other decorative ornaments for weapons.  At the same time that it dawned on her that she was basically defenseless, Willow finally noticed the soft scratching noise coming from his direction.  After a few minutes of this, her curiosity got the better of her.  <Curiosity killed the cat!> a tiny voice reminded her.  <Well, I'm not a cat!> she quickly reminded herself.

"What are you doing...in my room?" she added demandingly, not wanting it to appear as if he were welcome to stay, yet at the same time craning her neck to try and get a better view.

He ignored her question, but as she finally took a few hesitant steps in his direction, Willow could see his hand quickly gliding over what appeared to be a large sketchbook.

"I wish ya would have stayed asleep fer a while longer.  The look on yer face was so beautiful.  It was almost as if ya were dead," he said gravely, glancing up at her again for a moment and absorbing her features with hungry eyes before returning to his task.

Willow furrowed her brow even further but still stepped closer.

"Done!" he finally exclaimed triumphantly, causing Willow to step back in alarm as he jumped to his feet.  Angelus looked back and forth between the pad and his unwilling subject.  "Ya should've been a model in Paris, Rose.  Ya could've made a lot of money, bein' an eternally young beauty," he said with only a touch of sarcasm.  "Now, do ya want to see it?"

Willow forced her head to shake negatively, even though she did want to see the sketch...very badly in fact.  She was finding the vampire's nonchalant and non-threatening demeanor a bit off-putting.  As a result, while she was far from relaxed, Willow was not feeling as overwhelmed as she should be.

"No," she added with a squaring of her shoulders as she tried to squash her own curiosity.  "All I want is...for you to leave my room...now!"

A small, half-smile settled on his face as he noted the indecision in the tone of her voice and in her every move.  "Ya can't lie to me, Rose.  Not about this.  Even as yer lips say no, yer eyes tell me that ya truly do want to see it."

"No, I don't," she declared more loudly, crossing her arms across her chest and letting her resolve face settle in for the duration.  "Now get out!"

Angelus shrugged indifferently.  "Tis a shame, as I think it's me best work.  But, if ya don't want to see it, I might as well rip it up, then, or throw it in the fire."

As he made a move toward the fireplace, Willow's hand reached out beseechingly as if it had a mind of its own.  "Wait!" she cried, trying to pretend as if she didn't notice her face was crimsoning with embarrassment as she spoke.  "Don't destroy it.  I...I want to see it."  Her 'resolve face' was already forgotten.

Angelus turned from the fire with an obviously fake look of bewilderment.  "Really?  Ya want to see this?" he teased.  When his mysterious witch nodded her head, he held out a hand.  "Come to me, then," he ordered, the sinister sneer returning to mar his handsome face.

Willow shook her head.  "I have perfectly good eyes...well, maybe not as good as yours, but I can see just fine from here!"

Angelus laughed wryly and took slow deliberate paces toward her.  "Fine, I will come ta you, then."

As he approached, Willow stood her ground, nervously tucking a piece of hair that had fallen loose behind her ears.  Instead of walking straight to her, however, he moved at an angle.  Constantly watching her through predacious eyes, he stalked her, even circling once, and Willow found herself unable to look away.  Part of her, the part she sometimes wished would just go away, the same part which had flourished during her nights with Spike, couldn't help appreciating the sensually dangerous way he moved.  <Damn, Spike!> she cursed silently.  <Look at what he did to me.  I'm warped for life now!>

Finally, the vampire stopped directly behind the redhead.  He eased his arms around either side of Willow, but he didn't pull her back against him.  Instead, Angelus just encircled her with his strong arms and held the sketch in front of her.

Willow's breath caught when she looked at the image of her as she slept.  The woman the dark demon had drawn was indeed beautiful, hauntingly so, in fact.  The artist had skillfully captured her sleepy essence on paper--the tousled halo of her hair, the wisps that fell loose from the pins to rest on her face, even the relaxed musculature of her jaw and cheek that could only come with sleep.  Yet, even though the charcoal sketch was of a woman immersed in slumber, Willow could see emotion playing across her face.  It was apparent in her slightly opened mouth and the subtle curve at the corners of her lips.  Or perhaps it was the way her hand appeared to clutch at the pillow as she slept.  All of it came together to form an image of a woman swept up in an unconscious emotional moment.  As Willow remembered some of the dreams she'd been having, she realized exactly what Angelus had caught in his rendering, causing her to flush in humiliation.

"Do ya like it?" he murmured against the nape of her neck even as the perfectionist in him smudged one of the charcoal lines of her sketched throat with his thumb, softening it even further.

She did like the drawing but was not going to admit it.  Willow could still remember the similar drawings Angelus would one day do of Jenny and Buffy and what those drawings meant...either the beginning of a deadly obsession or the end of a life.  Still, she couldn't help being mesmerized by the image before her.  Was this how he really saw her?  All of her life she'd been waiting for someone to see her like that.  Of course, Spike had told her she was beautiful and sexy, but she didn't know what to think of anything he'd said anymore.  Oz, too, had told her she was cute and adorable, but this was different.  The woman Angelus had drawn was sensual and mysterious.  There was nothing 'cute' about her.

"It...it doesn't look a thing like me," Willow retorted before easily leaving the circle of his arms to walk to a nearby bookcase.  She needed to focus her attention on something else and found herself staring blankly at the books without noticing the titles.

"I want you to leave...now!" she commanded once she came to her senses.

"It does look like ya, Rose.  That's the way I see ya, and from the dream ya were just havin', I'd say that the last thing ya want me to be doin' is leavin', my love," Angelus drawled, setting the picture on a nearby end table.

"Stop calling me that!" Willow huffed as she found her anger again and whirled around to show it to him.  "I'm not your love and I never was.  As for the dream, I also dreamt that I reduced you to a pile of ashes, so I'm kind of hoping that dreams do come true."  She noted with disgust that this only amused him more.  "Now leave, before I tell our host that you stole his key...and...and that you are behaving in a most...ungentlemanly-like manner and I have you thrown out!" she commanded, albeit a little halting, while pointing to the door.  "With any luck, you'll be thrown out in the middle of the day," she added under her breath without any difficulty whatsoever, but Angelus wasn't going anywhere.  He was exactly where he wanted to be--where he'd wanted to be for a long time now.

"You could try, me love," the dark vampire began as he slowly strolled around the room, examining the floral arrangements, vases, and other obvious displays of wealth with distaste.  "But unfortunately fer you, as ya probably already have learned, Mr. Simms is a terrible card player.  As a result, I long ago won his and his estates services fer just such an occasion.  A man who so openly displays his emotions doesn't belong at a card table, let alone breathin', if I'd any say in the matter."

Dismissing his opinion on their host, Willow concentrated on the matter at hand.  "What?  You mean, you own this manor?" she asked, making sure to stay well away from him as he explored her room.

He didn't bother to look up to answer her questions, choosing instead to focus on an oil still life on the wall next to the bed.  "No, although I could, but I much prefer havin' a man of means such as our Mr. Simms indebted ta me.  This whole weekend is just a small portion of what he be owin' me," Angelus said, without even trying to hide his displeasure at both Mr. Simms and his taste in art.

Willow's mouth fell open momentarily as she realized the depths of the deception that she was entangled in. "He helped you do this?  He helped you lure me out here so I'd be at your mercy?"

The vampire's perfunctory perusal of her suite continued.  "I think yer given him a bit more credit than he deserves, Rose.  All he knows is that I wanted ta arrange a game, and I picked some of the players, like yerself.  He knows not why, nor does he know what I am.  He simply knows that I'm not a man to be trifled with.  Somethin' ya seem not ta have learned yet," he said darkly, his attention once again fully focused on her.

There was a brief pause as Willow finished assessing the situation.  "So, it's to be rape, then?" she spat out suddenly at the vampire that was now closing in on her, deep down wondering if he would even have to take her by force, if her dreams meant anything.  <This is not some historical romance novel, Willow!> she rudely reminded herself.   <Angelus isn't just some misunderstood pirate that will change his evil ways the moment you sleep with him!  He's evil, 100% pure evil, and he's just toying with you...for now...>

Willow's question stopped Angelus in his tracks, and the devilish smile quickly deserted his face to be replaced with a scowl.  "I'm not a raper of women.  I--"

Willow laughed bitterly at this, interrupting him.  "So, I'm supposed to believe that while you have no moral problems with killing or torturing innocent people, that you'd never stoop to taking a woman against her wishes?  How noble of you, Angelus.  I'm sure your mother would be very proud."

For a moment, the vampire lost his carefully chosen composure as his anger got the best of him.  He was not used to a living woman talking so defiantly to him.  He closed the distance between them in two lightening-quick strides and pulled her to him.

"If I wanted to rape ya, Rose, I could have done it while ya slept or at any moment since then, and ya wouldn't be able ta stop me!" he growled at her, his face threatening to morph to his true form at any moment.

Willow turned her head away as the vampire yelled at her so that she wouldn't have to see the demon bubbling just below the surface, and so that perhaps he couldn't see just how scared she was at the moment.  It brought back too many memories--too many angry faces that lowered to her neck over the years--too many betrayals.  It was no longer the physical pain she was afraid of, it was the emotional scars that never seemed to heal completely.

"Any man in this house could take ya against yer wishes, Rose.  It doesn't take a demon ta force his will on yer kind nor does it take any kind of thought.  A man with the mind of a babe could do that, so why would I?" he asked, a little softer this time as he regained some control.

"Rape isn't challenging enough for you, Angelus?  Am I supposed to be grateful that you're a man who enjoys the more intellectual forms of hurting a woman?" Willow challenged, meeting his eyes as she tapped into her calm reserve once more.

Angelus's face slowly broke into a smile.  Even though she'd angered him and had dared to defy him, he was thoroughly enjoying himself.  Every minute he spent with her proved her to be more of a challenge and worthy of the time and effort he'd put into this whole affair.  The demon would've been disappointed if she'd broken down into hysterics at the sight of him.

"Yes," he answered her question with a soft caress of her cheek, "and as you know, I've always loved a challenge, as do you."  He finished by turning his finger so that the soft stroke left by its passing became more of a graze with his fingernail.  While it was just hard enough to raise the skin, it did not bleed.

Willow slid out of his reach and started away from him, but she was quickly pulled back as he grabbed her hand.

"Tell me what ya are, me little flower," he said firmly as he trapped her in his strong arms.  Holding her in such a way that it left no room for doubt that she was the opposite and weaker sex, he peered down at her  "That's why I'm here."

"Let me go and I'll tell you," Willow said breathlessly as she struggled to put some distance between their bodies.

"Yer in no position to be demandin' anythin', Rose.  Tell me, then I'll let ya go!" he countered coldly.

"No...I...I can't think when..."

"When yer in me arms?" he asked, finishing her sentence.

Instead of continuing the debate, she nodded in agreement.

Slowly and with a very pompous smirk, he released her, and Willow was free from his mind-numbing embrace.

"I don't know where to start," she finally said as she paced in front of the dying fire.

"Are ya a witch?" he asked casually as he strolled over to her bed and made himself comfortable.

"Yes.  I-I mean, no!  Oh, a long time ago I was learning a few spells but I was never very good, and this whole thing has really put me off spell casting of any sort, believe me!"

He nodded thoughtfully.  "And you were able to cast a spell that kept ya young?"

"No," the redhead answered then bit her lip for a moment as she tried to decide how much to tell him.  "It was this...vampire.  He kidnapped me and then mucked everything up and somehow the result was that as long as the spell is in effect, I don't age."

"What vampire?" he asked, leaning forward a bit as his curiosity about this other vampire that he saw her with in Galway knew no bounds.

Willow shook her head and increased the speed of her pacing.  "No, I won't tell you that," she told him adamantly, knowing that he was not going to be pleased.  Then a thought struck her, and she quickly added, "He wouldn't like me talking about him.  He'd be very unhappy with me."  Willow tried to look nervous and frightened as she spoke the words, wanting him to believe that she was truly afraid of the wrath of the other vampire.  And to some extent, she was.

Angelus noted the strong emotions that radiated from her when she spoke of the other vampire...fear, anger, confusion....  This other vampire seemed like a demon after his own undead heart.

"Ya will tell me, Rose," he said darkly.  "One day...one way or another."

"Well, you'd be disappointed if I willingly told you everything, wouldn't you?  Now at least you have a reason to torture me," she said haughtily.  Willow was putting up a brave front but her stomach was twisting in knots.  She and Spike had spent hours talking about what she'd say if she ever ran into Angelus again, but just being in his presence made her mind jumble.  It took all her relaxation techniques and all of her strength not to just curl up in a ball in the corner and cower in fear and confusion.  .

Angelus couldn't hide his amusement and had a hearty laugh at her expense.  "Trust me, me love, I won't need a reason.  Now, go on with yer story."

Willow took a deep breath, hoping that he wouldn't ask specifics until she had more time to reorganize her plan.  "Basically I'm stuck here until he ends the spell.  I can't be killed, so as a result, I can't be made into a vampire."

"Ya can't die?" he asked skeptically, getting up from the bed and approaching her yet again.

"Apparently not," she said softly, backing away as he came closer.

"Is that how ya escaped me the last time we met, then?  Or did this other vampire aid ya?"

"Y--Yes," she stuttered as she came up against the wall behind her.  "I mean, I heal faster than normal so I was able to escape on my own."

As he came to stop in front of the woman, effectively trapping her between himself and the wall, he captured her left hand and brought it to his mouth.

"And the wedding ring?  Is it just part of the spell?" Angelus asked as he licked at the tender flesh that surrounded the silver band.

Willow nodded her answer wordlessly.  <At least he still doesn't realize the ring I'm wearing is his!>  Her eyes flickered between their identical silver rings before letting out a small cry as he bit into the skin on the underside of her hand.

Because he was so caught up in the sensations her blood created in him, Angelus didn't even notice as he reverted to his natural demon appearance.  The vampire leaned his full weight against her as he suckled at the tiny wounds he'd made, wanting to feel her body tremble with fear in response to the contact with his own.  He could feel her heart pounding beneath her soft breasts, and their rapid rise and fall also revealed her emotional havoc.

Willow tried to push him away with her free hand, but it was like trying to move a mountain.  All she succeeded in doing was feeling his rippling chest beneath her splayed fingertips.  Try as she might, she couldn't keep her eyes from where her hand and the vampire's mouth joined.  Spike's words came to her unbidden and suddenly her thoughts turned to chocolate...and she involuntarily licked her lips.

Angelus's opened his eyes, raising them to meet hers at the precise moment her tongue darted out.  Her reaction caused him to cease his ministrations momentarily.  There was desire there.  He definitely saw it this time.  What amazed him, though, was not the fact that he could evoke feelings of physical need and lust in her, but that he'd done precisely that while he was in his vampiric visage, feeding from her.  Nevertheless, he quickly reverted back to his human form.

Angelus had seduced many women in his long history, but never had he done so in his true form.  First he would make them want what they thought he was...just a handsome rogue.  Only when it was too late would they wonder in the back of the desired-clouded minds why his skin was so cold or why their love play didn't make him gasp for breath.  By then, it was too late.  Of course there were women who knew what he was as well, concubines and the like that enjoyed a vampire's kiss, but that was completely different.

"There is so much hunger in ya, me love," he whispered huskily against the wound, his eyes holding hers while he tried to feed the flame that he saw flickering in her eyes.  "How is it that a beautiful flower such as yerself has gone so long without being plucked?"

Willow tried to calm herself and extinguish her body's response to the enigmatic vampire.  Even as she took the slow deep breaths that refocused her mind and renewed her willpower, the redhead found it hard to make herself pull away from him.  Slowly, she found her tongue and spoke the words that would break the spell that seemed to have entranced them both.

"If you're referring to my virginity, it's because of the spell."

Angelus had to force his mind to focus even as his very demon screamed for more of her exotic blood.  Needless to say, though, this revelation intrigued him as new routes of exquisite torture came to mind.

"Do ya mean to tell me that besides remainin' a beautiful young lass, ya will also remain a virgin due to the healin' powers of the spell?"

Willow wrinkled her brow as she tried to follow his thought process.  Finally it dawned on her.  He thought that her virginity kept restoring itself.  "Oh...*Oh*!  No!  It doesn't have anything to do with the healing process.  It's a requirement of the spell.  If I were to...um....lose my virtue...the spell would be ruined."

Angelus couldn't hide his disappointment as his plans to steal her maidenhood countless times turned to ashes.  "So, then, what would happen if ya were ta be...deflowered?" he asked a little distractedly.  At the same moment, he'd noted that the small wounds he'd made on her finger had already stopped bleeding.  He'd never seen such quick healing in the living before and it fascinated him.

Having had enough, Willow utilized his seeming preoccupation with the latest developments to escape his hold.  She skittered quickly to the other side of the room where she stopped to stare out the windows into the starlit night.  Willow felt a wrenching inside as her thoughts were dragged once again into the past to a conversation she'd had with Spike one day.

She remembered how Spike had woken her that morning, trailing tiny nibbles down the curve at the back of her knee.  At that point, they'd only been together for a few days and nights, and each time she had awakened from dreams similar to the lustier one she'd had tonight, except they revolved around Spike instead of Angelus.

She had sighed contentedly, signaling to Spike that she was awake  "I think I need to leave," she'd told him suddenly, instantly regretting the way the words sounded.  Spike had ceased his sensual pampering of her sensitive flesh to climb back up to the head of the bed and roll her in such a way that she lay on top of him.

"What did you say?" he'd demanded.  "Why do you want to leave?  Bloody hell, you just got here, Pet.  Not to mention the fact that we finally learned to put our mouths to some other use than yelling at each other," he'd added with a devilish grin before pulling her head down to his.  He'd plundered her mouth hungrily and Willow had allowed herself to be drawn into the fog of passion that Spike was so easily able to create, not that she'd put up much of a fight.

It had been hours later before Willow was rational enough to concentrate, but she hadn't known how to bring up the subject again.

"Why do you want to leave?" he'd finally asked, raising himself up on one elbow to study her face and caress her still-flushed skin at the same time.

"I don't.  I'm just afraid that one of these times we're going to get carried away, and, well..."

"And what?"

That was a good question.  They had never really discussed what would happen if she were to completely give into her body's needs.  Willow'd propped herself up on an elbow so that they were facing each other, like two naked bookends.

"Spike, what would happen...if...well...you know...what would happen to the spell."

Spike pursed his lips.  "Crikey, I don't know, love.  I just always assumed we would be stuck here, but that you would become mortal again.  I suppose it's possible that we'd suddenly find ourselves back in Sunnyhell as well, like nothing had ever happened."

Willow had nodded her head thoughtfully, then suddenly poked him the chest with an excited finger.  "Or...it may be like in that movie ...um, what was it called..." she'd asked herself aloud as she worried her lip with her teeth. "...oh, Lost Horizon I think it was!  In the movie, there was this lost civilization and the people who lived there never aged...Then one day, these strangers, adventurers, discovered it.  Anyway, to make a long story short--"

"That'd be a first for you, Red...making a story short," Spike had teased, his hand once again moving over the curve of her hip.

Willow had smacked him playfully on his chest before continuing.  "...as I was saying, of course, one of the local women and one of the adventurers fall in love.  So when the adventurer decides to leave--"

"Why the bloody hell would the poof do a daft thing like that?  He was in paradise.  He was basically immortal, had a woman to keep him warm at night, and he left?  What a wanker!" Spike had scoffed.  "Humans can be so stupid sometimes."

"I don't know why he had to leave, he just did.  Now, shush and listen!  The woman went with him and when she left the confines of their city, she began to age rapidly...very rapidly.  In a matter of minutes she was an old woman, and soon he had nothing in his arms but a pile of dust and bones.  All the years that she'd avoided aging because of some magical force caught up with her all at once.  It was very sad...."

Spike had ceased his smiling and teasing, even his cool fingers had stopped their playful torment.  He'd moved away and laid on his back, staring at the ceiling.  He'd clenched his jaw over and over again as he considered what she said before turning back to look into her beautiful face.  "So, what you're saying is, if you were to shag me, or anyone for that matter, you could suddenly become over a 100 years old?"

Willow had nodded, then it hit had her what it really meant.  It was possible that if she were to have sex that it would kill her.  The realization had been like a slap of cold water, and she'd quickly clutched the sheet and pulled it up to her chin before rolling over.  Spike had slid up behind her and pulled her back against him, cupping a breast with his hand, not in need, but just because it seemed to belong there.

"Willow, don't worry.  I can control myself.  You have to trust me," he'd murmured against the nape of her neck, swirling his tongue just beneath her hairline before kissing it gently.

Willow had nodded slightly and sighed, then closed her eyes.  She'd had no dreams that night as she slept secure and safe in Spike's arms.

Angelus's movement on the other side of the room brought Willow back from her memories.  "We're not sure," she started abruptly.  "It's possible that nothing would happen and the spell would just end, leaving me stuck here...in Britain, I mean."  She whispered a silent prayer that he had yet to ask her about where she came from, let alone when.  "Or, I may age very rapidly and turn to dust as the years I've spent looking like this catch up with me, or we could just disappear, going back to where we first cast the spell and then none of this will have ever happened.  I just don't know."

Angelus leaned against the wall and watched her as she spoke about the other vampire and her possible future.  This other vampire had obviously hurt her in some way.  Maybe not physically, but the way her face darkened when she had to think of him made Angelus almost jealous of this other odd-looking demon.  He'd succeeded where Angelus had yet to...he'd gotten under her skin and wormed his way into her soul, changing her permanently.  And while Angelus had no doubt that he'd also achieved this is many ways, it was more due to the feelings that she'd once had for his living, souled self, not because he'd caused the redhead to care about his vampiric self.  It would happen though...he had no doubt about that at all.

The silence was eerie to Willow.  She had expected him to ask more questions, especially about Spike, but he was simply watching her instead.  It was obvious that he was thinking, probably trying to decide his next move, but she thought she preferred him talking to plotting.  Still, she couldn't think of anything to say.

"It's gettin' to be late, my flower," Angelus informed her, breaking the uncomfortable silence, "and since I hardly wish to ruin yer reputation by bein' seen leavin' yer room by some scullery maid, we need to be gettin' on with the other matters."

"O--other matters?" Willow squeaked.  "I've already told you everything that I can or will!"

Angelus shook his head in wry disbelief.  "I know there is more fer ya to be tellin' me, but that can wait.  Right now we need to be discussin' our little wager."

That wasn't quite what the redhead was expecting to hear, and she was filled with a sense of relief.  But that was short lived as it dawned on her that he would, of course, have ulterior motives.

"What wager?  Save the betting for the table, Angelus," she told him while she busied herself with poking at the fire.

"Now, Rose, as much as I love takin' all these other sods money, *yer* what I'm here fer."

That was no surprise to Willow, but she found it more frightening then flattering.  "I'm not part of the game," she informed him as she added some wood to feed the flames, hoping to warm her chilled body and soul.

"You and I are the best players here, by far.  These rich old men aren't gamblers.  They're just bored and willin' ta throw money away fer a little excitement in their lives.  Even if they lose all they brought, which I assure ya they will, they have a thousand times more at home, at least.  But you and I, Rose.  We're different from them.  We know what it means ta be takin' risks...suffer the consequences...don't we?"

Willow shook her head, denying the possibility that she had anything in common with the evil vampire.  "I don't know what you mean, Angelus.  A game is a game, either you win or you lose.  That's all."

Angelus came up behind her and gently stroked her hair.  "Ah, come now, lass.  We both know there is so much more to it than that.  What ya were doin' before I arrived, that wasn't gamblin'...that was just card playin'.  It's not until ya actually stand to lose somethin' that ya can't bear to part with that it becomes gamblin'.  It's the risk ya love, Rose.  It excites ya...I can see it in yer eyes when ya play, even when there's only money at stake."

Willow, preoccupied by Angelus's comments, didn't even think to pull away from him.  "Poker is plenty risky for me when it's only money to be lost, Angelus," she said quietly, engrossed in her own thoughts.  A lot of what he'd said she couldn't dismiss.  She enjoyed poker.  Heck, who was she kidding?  She loved it!  But if it weren't for the gambling aspect of the game, she could take it or leave it.  Yet, when the stakes were high and the competition fierce, the rush of adrenaline she felt was almost like...<Control yourself Willow...he's doing this on purpose!>

"Don't even try ta deny it, my love.  Ya love the game, and ya love ta be playin' someone who's a true challenge to ya.  Ya came alive tonight, Rose, but not until I sat at the table.  Not until ya had a worthy opponent."

Finally coming to her senses, Willow stepped out of his reach.  "I can't believe how conceited you are," she commented to the flames.  "I was surprised and frightened to find you there, to--to have to sit across from a vampire.  What you saw was the result of me having to be in the presence of a killer, and that's all!"

Angelus acted as if he didn't even hear her.  "Do ya have any idea how beautiful ya were tonight?  The fire in yer eyes when ya raised the stakes, the way ya wet yer lips whenever I called yer hand.  I wanted to sketch ya right then and there ta catch the look of anticipation as ya played--"

"Angelus--"

But the dark vampire didn't stop.  "I want ta see how beautiful ya are when the winnin's are higher, me Rose.  It would be a shame if the only thing you and I stood ta lose tomorrow was money, when we would both enjoy a different manner of profit."

Willow spun around but was surprised to see how near he was and had to quickly face back toward the hearth.  "Angelus...it's only a game..." she mumbled unconvincingly.

"Not ta you, it's not.  Nor ta me.  It's life, Rose, and we both know it--without risk, there isn't much point ta either."

Considering his words, Willow viciously jabbed at the fire with a long piece of kindling until it roared back to life.  She stared into the fire, wishing she could burn away her confusion over Angelus until there was nothing left but ashes.

"What...do you have in mind?" Willow finally asked as her curiosity for the better of her.

"When I win, Rose, ya will come back ta London with me, in me carriage, of yer own free will."

Willow put on her poker face, the unreadable one that she'd learned from many long and hard lessons with Spike, not all of which were about cards.  Then she slowly turned to look him in his cold, dark eyes.

"*When I* win, what do I get?"

He met her stare with a penetrating one of his own.  "Ya get to leave on yer own.  Ya get yer freedom."  He paused for a moment, waiting to see hope flash in her eyes, but she kept her emotions well hidden, much to his dismay.  "Consider it a head start, because I'll not stop lookin' fer ya, Rose.  I've found ya and I won't lose ya again...ever.  But, this way I'm given ya a sportin' chance..." he trailed off, smirking.

Willow crinkled her forehead as she thought his offer through.  "Why are you even bothering with the bet?  You could easily force me to come with you.  And how do I know that you won't change your mind...that you'll keep your word?  From my past experiences, vampires aren't the most trustworthy creatures of the night," she grumbled.

Angelus just shrugged, but on him, even that simple gesture looked menacing.  "Before I saw how good ya were, I had every intention of takin' ya against yer will, but now that I've seen the passion in yer eyes when ya play.  Well, if ya best me, it'll almost be worth it just ta see yer face when ya show me yer winnin' hand.  However, I'll just find ya later and take ya with me by whatever means necessary.  But fer now, I want Lady Luck and yer own skill at the game to decide yer fate."

Willow began to rub her temples as a dull throbbing began.  <Why am I even thinking about this?>

"But," Angelus continued, seeing her reluctance, "if ya refuse, and I have ta take ya kickin' and screamin', I will.  It just means I won't be able ta play poker with these pathetic men again, and I do so like takin' their money.  Of course, some innocent people are likely ta be killed in the process as well..."

Willow shook her head.  She couldn't believe this was happening--that everything she'd worked for could end because of a poker game...a game that shouldn't have even been invent yet...the game that Spike had taught her...the game that Angelus had taught his childe.  Irony was a bitch.

"How do I know that I can trust you?" she questioned him through a heavy sigh.  "That you'll let me leave on my own when I win and that you won't just steal me away in my sleep or throw me over your shoulder like some barbarian?"

"Ya have me word, Rose.  Would it help if I swore on a bible fer ya?  I'm sure Mr. Simms is a God-fearin' man, and we can find a scarcely used copy around here somewhere," he laughed arrogantly.

What choice did she have, whether she trusted him or not?  She couldn't leave; he'd made sure of that.  So she could either win and leave with her dignity intact, lose and made a scene knowing that it would probably end in bloodshed, or lose and go quietly under the guise of his friendship and protection.  There was no choice to be made.  His threat to hurt innocent bystanders had clinched the deal.

"Okay, I agree to your terms, Angelus.  Now go," she told him wearily.  Willow suddenly felt every second of her one-hundred-plus years.

Angelus clucked at her impatience.  "One more small matter," Angelus said.  He then walked to the wardrobe and threw open the doors.

"What are you doing?" she demanded, as he started going through her clothes, throwing some of her gowns on the floor.

"Tryin' to find somethin' more suitable fer ya ta wear tomorrow.  In that dress yer wearin' ya might as well be in a convent!" he told her with disdain, casting an impatient look at the modest cut of her current clothing.  "I want every man and demon down there ta see what will never be theirs and what will forever be mine!"

Willow rolled her eyes at his possessive language.  What was it about vampires and the word 'mine'?

"No!  First of all, I'm not yours and I never will be!  But, more importantly, I'm not some doll for you to dress up, or some trophy to impress your blood-sucking buddies with!" she informed him, exhaustion making her impudent.  She grabbed a blue dress from the pile the vampire had made on the floor.  It was long sleeved and had quite a high lace collar, but the cut was very flattering to her.  The lines of it nicely showed off her assets, without being obvious or making her self-conscious.  <Last thing I need is all the men staring at my chest!  Although...it could distract him and help me win...> she thought briefly.  <No, I'll win because I'm the best, not because of my body!>

"I'm wearing this tomorrow.  It's the only thing suitable that I haven't worn already!" she informed him brusquely.  Angelus eyed the high cut gown with displeasure.  It would show little of her neck or collarbone, let alone her soft, tantalizing bosoms.

"No, ya won't be needin' that frock...ever again."  He turned back to the task at hand, looking at the three dresses.  "Don't ya have anythin' that's *red*?"

Willow started picking up the mess he'd made.  "No, I don't have anything red!  I'm supposed to have just come out of my mourning period, in case you didn't know.  Widow, remember?" she griped, but Angelus paid her no heed.

"Ah!  That's more like it!" he extolled as he held up an emerald-green evening dress that he'd found in a garment bag in the back.  It was still too modest for his taste, but at least it was of a style that was worn off the shoulders.  It would look beautiful on her, accentuating her graceful neck, coppery hair and angelic face.

Willow shook her head adamantly.  "No, I can't wear that...that's an evening dress.  I brought it just in case there was a more formal dinner.  I can't show that much skin during the day they'll think I am some sort of...prostitute!"  She shoved the more simple and demure dress in his face.  "This is what I'm wearing, and I don't care what you have to say, now get out!"

Grabbing the dress she was holding, Angelus placed two hands along its ample hem line.  With one swift motion, he pulled it apart, rendering a huge tear from the bottom to the waist.  "Guess ya won't be wearin' it now, will ya?" he said with a cocky smirk before dropping it on the floor.  Then he thrust the green dress at her.  "Yer wearin' this, or do I have ta rip up every article of clothin' in this room?" he snarled, making Willow remember exactly what he was again.  "And wear yer hair up...I want ta see yer pretty, fragile little neck," he added, moving his hand so that it wrapped around her throat and giving it a slight squeeze.

"Go to hell, Angelus!" she retorted as she stepped away from him.  "But first, get out of my room!"

Angelus laughed.  "Ya want me to go ta hell, do ya?  As if that would be a punishment fer a man like me" he snickered again.  "If I do go ta hell, my flower, I'll take ya with me.  Yer mine, and ya best be rememberin' that!" he said darkly, stepping closer.  "And now, a goodnight kiss and I'll leave ya ta yer dreams of me."

"Just go," Willow said weakly, turning to face away from him.  She was drained and wanted to sleep.

"One day, me love, ya will beg fer my lips on yer skin," he whispered in her ear without touching her.  "But I can wait.  We have forever, remember.  Forever."

Forever.  That last word sent a shudder of fear through her body.  Forever for vampires was a very long time...too long.

Before Willow found the strength to turn around, she heard him open the door.  She didn't relax until she saw the door click closed behind him.  After locking the door, Willow quickly threw a few more logs on the fire and changed into her nightgown.  Snuggling as deeply under the covers as she could, she still couldn't seem to get warm, even with the blazing fire.  Eventually, however, she managed to fall into a deep dreamless sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~
End Chapter 30

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