Take Your Time
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 was looking for her, he would no doubt head for the Rom first, which was just another reason why she'd had to leave Romania 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 play 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 forget 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 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 truly 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 to 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.
"You 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.