In the Dark
Children of Night, Book 1
When you live forever, you’re bound to make a few mistakes.
1969 San Francisco. World-weary Conrad Quintano should have known better than to fall in love with a human—much less Suzanne Fischer, the barely legal, adventure-seeking hippie beauty known as Desert Rose. And the very last thing he should have agreed to do was to raise her babies and protect them with his life. But even twelve-hundred-year-old master vampires can find it hard to reject a deathbed request—especially when issues of love, guilt and blood are involved.
Present day. Raised in virtual isolation, twins Marc and Julie Fischer have always known they are vampires. But they never knew their parentage—or their unique status in the vampire world—until their “uncle” Damian comes to fetch them home. The family reunion, however, isn’t what they expect. They’re thrust into a world for which they’re totally unprepared. And the father they expected to see, Conrad, is missing.
How to find him…and whom to trust? Solving the mystery of betrayal and vampire family values will prove the Beatles had it right. All you need is love…and an occasional side of blood.
While reading this book you may experience any of the following, an increased desire to wear flowers in your hair, dress in tie-dye or nap during the day. Other symptoms may include an intolerance to sunlight, an aversion to garlic-flavored tofu and a pronounced urge to bake…or get baked.
“Can you believe we’re finally here?” Marc asked as the limousine pulled to a stop in front of the expansive Victorian mansion. He was out of the car and across the sidewalk in a flash. Given that he didn’t wait for her response, his sister assumed the question was rhetorical. “Jules, come see this place,” he called as he stared through the fence. “It’s huge!”
Julie Fischer took her time joining her twin on the sidewalk. They’d been waiting years for this moment to arrive. She wasn’t going to rush now and spoil it. Happily breathing in the moist, fog-laden air of San Francisco, she glanced around curiously. They’d seen very little of the city on the drive in. The car that had been sent to pick them up from the train station in Emeryville, on the other side of the Oakland Bay Bridge, had been equipped with windows specially darkened to protect their sensitive eyes from exposure to the setting sun. But night had finally fallen—blessedly dark, blissfully cool.
“Well?” Marc inquired impatiently as he turned to take their bags from the driver. “What do you think?”
Julie cast an appraising eye over the edifice before them, or as much of it as she could see through the wrought-iron bars and the engulfing vegetation. Conrad’s house. Home. At last! They’d been hearing about this place their entire lives, but this was the first time since they were babies they were actually seeing it. She sighed, vaguely disappointed when no memory surfaced. “I guess I thought it would be more…I dunno, gothic, or something.”
“You and your damned clichés.” Marc shot her a disgusted look. “So, what’re you saying? Red, black and overgrown isn’t broody enough for you now? You were hoping for a moldy old castle, maybe?”
Julie sighed. “No. You know that’s not what I’m saying either.” Okay, so she had to admit, the landscaping was a tad on the uber-mature side. What might once have been a conventional lawn was now no more than a patchy green blanket of moss spread between the tangled roots of a mixed stand of evergreens—redwood, hemlock, laurel—that combined to create a lot more shade than most people would find tolerable. The bulk of the house had been painted a deep, striking shade of red, a color commonly known as oxblood, but Julie had read enough about historical design trends to suspect that the trim and the gables, everything Marc was calling black, was actually a Van Dyke brown. A not uncommon color combination for structures of this period, not that it mattered. Marc’s point, such as it was, was valid. This house was home to vampires. It looked the part. It just wasn’t what she’d been expecting.
Before she could reply further, they were interrupted by a large, slightly menacing figure who emerged from the gatehouse, clipboard in hand, to inquire, “Can I help you folks?”
Julie’s hormones perked up as she looked the man over—all six and a half heavily muscled feet of him. Late twenties. Caucasian. Reasonably healthy. He had close-cropped dark hair and suspicious blue eyes she was fairly certain would prove a dead match, color-wise, for his nicely snug jeans. Yum. “We’re here to see Conrad,” she said, nodding at the Quintano family crest embroidered on his black polo shirt—the same design that had been worked into the iron of the gate. She tested the air around him. Hunger burned in her veins. Definitely human. Recently fed upon. Still semi-enthralled. I could have him. Her fangs pulsed at the thought and it was all she could do to keep from licking her lips. I could have him right now.
“Certainly, Miss. If you’ll give me your names I’ll check and see if you’re on the list.”
She drifted closer, throwing all the power of her will at his mind—just for the fun of it. “You don’t need our names,” she murmured in her most compelling voice.
For a moment, it seemed to work. He drew back slightly, blinking in surprise. His eyes heated as he looked her up and down. She smiled as she sensed his determination start to waver. Then he shook his head and frowned at her sternly. “Yes, Miss, I’m afraid I do.”
“Marc and Julie Fischer,” her brother supplied, stepping in before Julie could make another attempt. He grabbed hold of her arm, just above the elbow, whispering, “Down, girl,” in her ear as he forced her to back away from the man.
“Thank you, sir.” The gatekeeper glanced at his clipboard, then punched a code into the gate’s control panel. “Go right ahead.”
“Spoilsport,” Julie grumbled as she took back her arm.
They headed up the brick walkway to the house. Marc smiled mockingly at her. “You don’t need our names,” he said, adding in his best Darth Vader voice, “Oh, the force is strong in this one—not!”
Julie elbowed her brother in the ribs. “Shut up, Marc.” Really, though, she supposed she deserved his teasing this time around. She should have known better than to try and countermand orders the gatekeeper had probably received from Conrad himself. When had that ever worked before?
The Victorian’s double front doors were standing open. As the twins climbed the white marble stairs to the porch, they could hear music coming from inside the house; drums and horns and hot, Latin guitars.
“Sounds like someone’s throwing a party,” Marc observed as they stepped inside the dark, paneled entrance.
“You think maybe it’s for us?” Julie suggested hopefully. “You know, like a surprise homecoming party or something? I mean, we still don’t know why we’re here so…it could be anything, right?” It had been a shock to be so suddenly summoned here, with no explanation offered, after years of being told that either the time or the circumstances weren’t right.
Marc shook his head. “Little noisy for a surprise, don’t you think?” He put their bags on the floor next to the ornate brass coat tree and glanced distractedly around the empty foyer. “I dunno. Something doesn’t feel right.”
They hesitated for a moment longer but no one appeared to greet them. Curious, they followed the sounds—the laughter, the music, the chatter of voices—toward the rear of the house.
The closer they drew to the noise, the stronger the smells became. Wine and incense, arousal and sweat and most potent of all, layered beneath the rest, the sweet, rich, coppery scent of fresh blood. Julie’s mouth was watering by the time they reached their destination.
“Holy shit,” her brother muttered, stopping dead in his tracks. Julie found herself nodding in agreement. The center of the large, dimly lit room had been cleared of furniture to serve as a dance floor. Most of those dancing were barely clothed and phenomenally well-toned and all of them, male and female, vampire and human alike, wore expressions of almost orgasmic bliss.
“And then some.” Julie’s gaze traversed the room’s perimeter, which seemed to have been lined with a succession of chaises and sofas and piles of pillows, all occupied by small groups feeding from one another. “Wow.”
Suddenly, a loud commotion arose from the low dais at the far end of the room. “Ay, ay, ay,” a familiar voice called out in greeting. “Mis queridos—you’re here!” Make that almost familiar. Julie stared in consternation as a tall, sculpted figure rose from the chaise upon which he’d been reclining and hurried forward to greet them. The voice was Damian’s, all right, but the tone—high-pitched and excited—was entirely more Chihuahua-like than she’d been expecting.
Marc gave a strangled gasp as their uncle strode toward them, his arms held wide, his long black hair streaming out behind him. He was wearing an open, floor-length, red- and black-patterned kimono over gauzy black pants—and a sly smile that suggested he knew exactly the kind of impression he was creating and was loving every scandalous second. Gold rings glittered on his fingers, his ears and both nipples. The crowd parted deferentially to let him pass.
“Stop staring,” Julie whispered urgently to her brother. “It’s not like we didn’t know.” Damian had never kept his sexual orientation a secret, but even so, they’d never seen him quite like this before. Tonight, he wasn’t just out of the closet, he’d brought the whole closet out with him.
Before Marc had a chance to resist, Damian swept him up in a big hug and kissed him loudly on both cheeks. “Ah, mi amor,” he crooned, pinching his cheek as he let him go. “It’s been too long.”
Next, Damian turned his attentions on Julie. As his arms closed tightly around her she found herself transported back to her childhood. This was the Damian she remembered. Big, warm, comforting. The uncle who’d read her bedtime stories and tucked her in at night. Who’d wiped away her tears when she fell and skinned her knees—never once pointing out that the scrapes had sometimes healed before the tears even started.
Julie returned his embrace. She went up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “Nice threads, Uncle Damian,” she whispered in his ear. “I like this whole ‘Queen of the Damned’ look you’ve got going on.”
Damian threw back his head and roared with laughter. “That’s my baby girl.” Pressing an enthusiastic kiss on Julie’s forehead, he smiled at her approvingly. “I knew I could count on you, chica.” Then he drew back and looked at them both. “Now,mis niños, let me look at you. How was the train? Did you have a good trip? You must be famished.” He waved a hand at the surrounding crowd and suggested. “Why don’t you go find yourselves something to eat?”
“Where’s Conrad?” Marc asked, ignoring the pleasantries, startling Julie with his abruptness. His gaze scanned the room. “He’s not here. Where is he?”
“Oh, who knows where he’s gone!” Damian heaved a long-suffering sigh. “That man. Always running here, flitting there—who can keep track? Entre nous? Given all the places he tries to be in at one time, I’m almost afraid the big silly has begun to believe he can turn into a bat.”
“Has Conrad left town?” a male voice inquired. Julie stared at the new vampire with interest. He was slim with auburn hair; not quite as tall as Damian. He had a delicious cleft chin and an unsettling inquisitive gleam in his hazel eyes. “I hadn’t heard.”
A shadow passed through Damian’s eyes, something dark and dangerous, and then it was gone. He smiled at the newcomer. “My dear, dear Armand, I’m sure your guess is…oh, well, let’s see…probably almost as good as my own, n’est pas? But, wherever he’s gone, I’m sure he’ll be back to delight us all again very soon.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Marc demanded, the tone of his voice practically turning the words into an accusation. “I thought you said Grandfather wanted to see us? Isn’t that why we’re here? Why would he leave town if he knew we were coming? And…what on earth are you wearing, anyway?”
Julie stared at her brother, perplexed. What was wrong with him? It wasn’t like Marc to be so confrontational. It wasn’t like either of them, come to think of it. At almost forty years old, they both still found it nearly impossible to act counter to the expressed wishes of the two men who’d raised them. Especially Conrad. Her pondering was cut short when her attention was snared by a soft, amused chuckle.
“Grandfather?” A disbelieving smile had curled Armand’s lips. His gaze flicked curiously over them all. “Are you referring to Conrad? I’m sure he must love being called that! But, come, Damian, you must introduce me. Are these yours?”
Once again, Julie caught sight of that dark gleam in Damian’s eyes. He flashed a look at both twins, warning them to silence, before turning back to Armand with another saccharine smile. “Why, yes, Armand, indeed they are. And now you know all my little secrets. But, aren’t they just too precious? This is Julie and her brother, Marc. Marc’s a little cranky at the moment. He gets that way when he isn’t fed.”
“Who doesn’t?” Armand sent a cursory, disinterested nod in Marc’s direction before bowing low over Julie’s hand. “Mademoiselle. Enchanté.”
Julie shivered in delight as he pressed his lips to her hand and the warmth of his kiss traveled all the way up her arm. “Likewise.”
Armand’s eyes met hers and he smiled in gentle amusement. Then he turned his quizzical gaze on Damian. “I must admit, mon ami, you’ve caught me off guard. I didn’t think your tastes ran in quite this…direction?”
“Oh, Armand.” Damian raised his eyes to the ceiling and sighed theatrically. “You disappoint me. Can you not see that they’re twins? How could I break up such a pretty set? It would have been…gauche.”
Relieved laughter burst from Armand’s lips. “Of course. My apologies. I should have guessed it was something like that.” He eyed Julie one more time, a little more intensely than before, then he gave her hand a final squeeze and let go. “Tres bon. I’ll leave you three to your reunion,” he said as he bowed once again. “Au revoir.”
Damian watched as Armand disappeared back into the dancing crowd, then he turned his attention back to the twins. “Watch yourself around that one,” he advised Julie sternly. “Don’t get too close.” He regarded them thoughtfully for a moment, then suggested, “In fact, I think it might be best if you two were to wait for me in the kitchen until I’m done here. It’s down at the end of the hallway, toward the back of the house. Go eat. We’ll talk later.”
Disappointed, Julie was turning to leave when Marc shook his head. “No. We’ll talk now. I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on. Where’s Conrad?”
“Marcus,” Damian’s voice, though pitched low, held a note of warning. “You will do as I tell you. Conrad always said you two couldn’t handle this environment yet. This is no time for you to be proving him right.”
Julie held her breath as the two men stared at each other, each refusing to back down. Finally, Damian sighed. “I have no time for this,” he grumbled as he shook his head. He looked to be about equal parts aggravated, worried and quietly proud. He turned away abruptly, so suddenly that his robe flared out around him. Clapping his hands to be heard above the music he called, “Out! Out! Vayamos! Party’s over! Everyone go home!”
A chorus of disappointed groans and half-hearted protests rose from the crowd but Damian stood firm. Smiling serenely, he repeated the order. “Out! Everybody. Now.” The authority in his voice was such that even Julie found herself once again turning to leave. She saw Marc begin to do the same until Damian reached back and grabbed hold of their wrists. “Not you two.”
The disgruntled guests filed slowly out through the doorways. Armand was among the last to leave. The parting glance he shot in Damian’s direction was filled with seething animosity. Julie stiffened in alarm, but Damian appeared not to notice.
Finally they were alone. Damian sighed as he let go of their wrists. Reaching for the tiny strings that fastened his kimono he drew the garment around himself and secured it in place. “Now, then,” he said as he threw an arm around each of their shoulders and propelled them from the room. “Let’s go down to the kitchen and have something to eat while we talk, shall we?” Drawing them both even closer, he pressed a kiss against the side of each of their heads. “I baked cookies. Who wants chocolate chip?”
“This is so great.” Julie beamed at Damian as he slid a plate of freshly baked cookies onto the pristine surface of the antique kitchen table. She looked and sounded far more enthusiastic than Marc thought anything about the evening warranted. “I can’t believe you made us cookies. It’s been years!”
“More like decades,” Marc grumbled, resisting the force of habit that almost had him reaching for one. What was the use, after all? When they were children, Damian had made it a point to bake some kind of treat whenever the twins had a play date. It was for the sake of the other children, mostly, but also so that Marc and Julie would feel more comfortable, would know what to expect and how to behave on those rare occasions they were allowed to accept an invitation to play at someone else’s house.
But what was meant to be a comfort had backfired in his case. It had only made him feel more different from the other children, rather than less. The fact that they could eat “normal” food had finally convinced the then thirteen-year-old Marc to try and wean himself from his dependence on blood. After five days, he’d collapsed in the middle of a routine fencing lesson and a distraught Conrad had gone ballistic and had to be talked out of completely disassembling the kitchen. From that point on , there’d been a ban placed on any further attempts at cooking and any foodstuffs other than blood were strictly forbidden from even being brought into the house. It was a line drawn in the sand—very deep, very definite, very distinct. A line Damian had never once dared to cross. Until now. Which only made his actions tonight seem even more alarming.
“Does Conrad know about this?”
Damian’s mouth tightened. A faint frown creased his brow as he finished doling out snacks, taking clear PVC bags filled with blood from the refrigerator and tossing them down in the center of the table. “No, Marc,” he said at last, after seating himself across from the twins. “He doesn’t. Conrad is…well, he’s missing, actually.” His voice faltering, he paused, as though to regroup. “That’s why you’re here. That’s the reason I sent for you. I need you two to help me find him.”
So that’s why, Marc thought, feeling oddly vindicated, even as the cold thrill of adrenaline iced his veins. He’d known something was wrong, right from the start. The moment he’d stepped foot inside this house tonight he’d sensed the tension. The fear running beneath Damian’s seemingly carefree demeanor had set all his nerves on edge.
“I don’t understand,” Julie said, sounding mystified. “You said earlier that he was just out of town. How could he be missing, Damian? Where would he go?”
Damian spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know, child. He wouldn’t say, exactly. All I know is that he had some…some minor business that he thought needed his personal attention. It shouldn’t have taken him more than a couple of hours to resolve things, at least that’s the impression he gave me. That was almost three weeks ago. I haven’t heard from him since.”
Three weeks? For almost a minute, both twins just stared, shocked into silence by his admission. “But—when you called—when I talked to you on the phone the other day, you told me he wanted to see us,” Marc protested. “You’re saying that was a lie?”
Damian shrugged. “I didn’t want to alarm you. I thought it was better if you didn’t know too much ahead of time. Just in case.”
“But, Damian, that—” Julie’s words stumbled over each other on their way out of her mouth. “I mean, what if he’s… He can’t be… He’s not…”
“Dead?” Damian smiled sadly. “No, chica. He’s not dead. Not yet.” Eyes burning with conviction, he leaned into the table, his closed fist pressed to the center of his chest. “I would know if that were the case. If he were dead, I’d feel it—here.” He shrugged and then added, “As would you, I’m sure. We’d all feel it, if that were to happen. The entire nest would erupt into chaos such as you cannot imagine. But, that’s not even the worst that could happen, might still happen, if my suspicions are correct.”
Marc started in surprise. What could be worse than losing Conrad? “What suspicions are those?”
Damian sighed. “From what little he would tell me, I have reason to suspect Conrad was lured away by someone who had knowledge of a very personal nature, someone who knew about a particular weakness that could be exploited. Since he hasn’t been killed, I believe it’s likely he’s being held somewhere, most probably without food, until he’s weak enough to be overcome by someone who wouldn’t be able to do so otherwise.”
No food? Just the memory of his own hunger—raw, unreasoning, screaming for sustenance—brought Marc rushing to his feet. “For three weeks? And what the hell have you been doing all that time? Besides throwing parties and baking cookies and lying to everyone and dressing up like a—”
“Marc!” Julie glared at him. “That’s enough. Stop it!”
“It’s a reasonable question,” Damian murmured, seemingly unaffected by Marc’s outburst. If anything, he appeared almost amused by it, his smile taking on a faintly ironic tilt. “Given how little either of you really understand about us—how we live, what we are.”
Vampire. The word whispered in Marc’s mind and, as usual, he fought to deny it. He knew they weren’t like other people. He’d always known that. But did that automatically make them monsters? Did it make them demons? Did it make them…something less than human? How often in the past had he tried to argue that point, until Julie would groan in frustration, clap her hands over her ears and refuse to hear any more.
“I always said it was a mistake to keep you two so sheltered from the world you’d eventually have to re-enter.” Damian shook his head, his amusement deserting him. “And, now… Ah, it’s impossible.” Shoving back his chair, he got to his feet and began to pace. “There’s too much you two don’t know, so much you need to know, and now, even if I had the time to explain it to you—which I don’t—I still don’t know how much he would want me to say.”
Marc watched him, teeth aching to tear into…something, his stomach burning with an unaccustomed ferocity. The tug of Julie’s hand on his wrist, urging him to sit back down, finally registered. He gave in to it, but grudgingly.
“Damian, you said ‘that’s why we’re here’,” Julie reminded him. “What did you mean? What makes you think we can find him if you haven’t been able to? Especially if you can’t tell us anything helpful.”
“Because you have to,” Damian snapped, eyes blazing as he turned to glare at them. “Because there’s no one else who can do it, no one else I can trust with the truth. Don’t you think I would have kept this from you if I could have? Do you have any idea how furious Conrad is likely to be when he learns I’ve brought you here? But it can’t be helped. There are reasons why I cannot look for him myself. Reasons, which you two can’t possibly understand at this point, why I have had to stay here and yes, Marc, throw parties, and continue pretending that everything is just as it’s supposed to be. For as long as I can.”
Marc crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair and returned Damian’s angry look with one of his own. “Well, I don’t care about your reasons. You’re going to have to do a much better job of explaining things than that. Otherwise, you can kiss any hopes you might have of us helping you good-bye.”
“Marc!” Once again his sister turned to look at him, her expression scandalized. “What are you saying? Conrad’s missing! Of course we’re going to help find him.”
Damian’s gaze turned haughty. “This is not the time to be thinking with your blood, chavalo. I need your help with this and you will give it to me. Now, what is it you wish to know?”
“Just what I said,” Marc replied. “I want to know what’s going on. Who’d want to kill Conrad. And, and why?”
“Such ignorance.” Damian resumed pacing. “If I knew who was behind such a plot, Marcus, I would already have destroyed them myself, would I not? As to why…dios mio, there could be so many reasons for that! Let me see how I can make things clear to you. Do you recall anything you were taught about the social structure of lions and wolves and other such predators? They live in family groupings, do they not? Under the protection of a single dominant leader? It’s not so different for us except that, since we grow stronger with age and have fewer spawn, our nests are much more stable, our leadership far less likely to be challenged. But, if something were to happen to Conrad.” He waved a hand at the encompassing space. “Then this house and most of the people you saw here tonight, all the wealth and power Conrad has amassed over the centuries, the houses you grew up in, the money that supports you, everything you’ve ever known—all of that would be at risk.”
Sighing, he continued. “It’s bad enough when a leader, such as Conrad, meets with some sort of fatal accident. Imagine an anthill, if you will, after you’ve stirred it with a stick—that’s what we would be like. Everyone in the nest would be at each other’s throats, fighting for supremacy, struggling for power, for control, until a new, uncontested leader finally emerged to take charge.”
“Someone like you, for instance?”
Damian’s gaze iced over. “Yes, Marc, if you were to be very lucky, it might be me. But this nest is far larger than I think either of you realize and many of its members are exceptionally strong. It’s by no means certain that I would prevail if such a contest were to take place. However, fighting within the nest is only one of the possibilities we face. If Conrad were to be killed outright, intentionally dispatched, as it were, things would be very different. There would be no fighting then, for there would be no need. The vampire who killed him, who drained him of his blood, would instantly inherit a large portion of his power, automatically gaining control of the nest and all its resources without any need for further bloodshed. The transfer of power would be orderly, almost instantaneous—painless for most of the nest—making for a scenario that many people might view as preferable. Do you have any idea what it is I’m trying to tell you?”
“Yeah, I think so. You’re saying it would be better for all of us if we let you kill him—is that it?”