One snowy night, Ana finds herself thrown into a world of vampires, magic, and evil...
I muted a gasp of pain as my partner’s strong fingers found a newly inflicted bruise on my ribs. Trying to quell the spring of tears to my eyes, I clenched my teeth and concentrated on the task at hand. Opening night of our ballet was five days away; although we were ready, the relentless perfectionism that drove us all kept us practicing well past quitting time. This was my first big performance since recovering from a broken ankle four months earlier, and I was determined to do it right. The other cast members had left, but I along with the other main roles, Victor Romano and Duncan Irons, remained, drilling our scenes over and over.
It was cool and rainy when we finally walked out of the Siroux Dance Studio onto the covered sidewalk. I exhaled and watched my breath fog in the air, not really feeling the temperature through the sweat-soaked dance clothes I wore.
“This is nasty driving weather.”
Shivering slightly, Victor Romano looked down at me, his shiny black hair catching blue highlights in the lamp behind us.
“Do you need a lift home?” he asked hesitantly, knowing that my car was out of commission at the moment.
“No,” I replied too defensively. “I’m taking the bus, but thank you.”
He raised an eyebrow at my tone, not used to any spitfire out of me.
“Are you alone tonight?” he tried again. This time I looked up into his face, our dark eyes meeting. I could see concern there, for I had performed particularly poorly that night. The rainy weather made my ankle ache, along with my other injuries.
“Yes, but I’m having company for dinner. Papa is away on a business trip this weekend. He won’t be back until Monday.”
Victor nodded thoughtfully, face impassive, then shouldered his tote bag and bade me goodnight. As I watched him walk away, I could not help but reflect on how attractive he was: those dark, chiseled Italian features and sculpted body were lady killers.
“Not so good tonight, Ana.”
The sudden voice at my ear was startling; I jerked out of my reverie and took an instinctive step backward. Tall and lean, Duncan Irons stared at me from within his coldly handsome face, crystal blue eyes locked onto my brown.
“Duncan,” I exclaimed, trying to hide the fact that he had scared me. “I didn’t hear you come out.”
“I wonder,” he simply replied, making me frown at the barely veiled insinuation. “Taking the bus home?”
I nodded, pulling my sweater tighter against the chill of the rapidly falling winter twilight. It did not escape his notice.
“Where’s your coat?”
“In my tote bag,” I replied. He scowled and shook his head.
“If practice tonight was any indication, you’re already not up to peak performance. Getting sick won’t make that any better. Go change clothes.”
“The bus will be here in a minute,” I argued, wounded by his direct insult.
Grabbing my arm with a surprisingly steely grip, he directed my back towards the doors to the studio.
“Go change, Ana. I’m taking you home.”
Knowing better than to argue when Duncan had made up his mind, I did as he commanded. Stepping back into the warm foyer, I walked into the first bathroom. Crossing the carpeted floor to the counter, I set my tote on the gray marble surface and unzipped it. I proceeded to strip off my damp dance clothes, donning jeans and a light sweater. Slipping into leather clogs, I looked into the mirror, checking to see if a French braid still neatly held my hair. Satisfied with my reflection, I shouldered the bag and exited the bathroom. Crossing the dark foyer, I stepped back outside onto the sidewalk. Duncan appeared out of the shadows.
“Where’s your coat?”
“In my bag,” I replied. He said nothing, but the tight set of his jaw made it quite clear that he did not approve of what he considered direct defiance of his wishes. Taking me by the elbow, we silently walked to his car. Once inside the silver Mercedes, he fastened our seatbelts and started the ignition. Flipping the heat on, he engaged the windshield wipers and shifted the car into gear. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, trying to gauge his mood. In the six years I had known Duncan, we had never been what could be considered friendly, although working together for scores of hours a week on ballets and dance recitals gave us a certain amount of understanding.
“Is your father home?” he abruptly asked once we had pulled onto the highway.
“No,” I answered. “He’s in Florida on a…business trip.”
“Left you by yourself?”
“Yes,” I snapped defensively. “I can take care of myself.”
He fell silent once more. I busied myself by looking out the window; the thirteen years prior to Rochester had been spent in a rural city in upstate New York, and even after six years I did not tire of admiring the city at night.
“So,” he began in a casual tone, “where did you get that big bruise?”
My stomach clenched in alarm, and I immediately became defensive.
He cut his eyes over at me, obviously not believing my fib.
“That’s quite a bruise to get at home.”
“Well, it happened,” I lamely refuted.
“So if I told the Department of Family and Children Services to pay your house a visit, they wouldn’t discover anything?”
“Defax!” I exclaimed, feeling the fear rising in my throat. “Don’t be ridiculous, Duncan!”
“I’m not. You are, Ana. You might be hiding it from other people, but you can’t from me.”
“What are you talking about, Duncan?” I tried again, but knowing in my heart that it was a battle already lost.
“You really want me to spell it out? Fine, I can do that. Let me tell you about Mario Farinelli. Father to a highly talented dancer, owner of several successful dot-com franchises. He has his fingers in many pots, from the black market to Atlantic City casinos—no wonder he was a self-made millionaire before you turned 10. Two counts of fraud, embezzlement, and domestic violence. Tell me again, Ana, how your mother died?”
I did not know whether to feel rage or terror at Duncan’s calm listing of my father’s deeds.
“My mother died from an accidental overdose of painkillers,” I stiffly told him.
“Is that what he’s been telling you all these years? Really, Ana, are you sure it was accidental?”
“What do you want from me?” I cried out, feeling trapped. He glanced over at me quickly.
“Only one thing, Ana. Leave your father’s house. Now. Tonight. While you still can.”
I stared at him incredulously.
“Leave? I can’t move out, Duncan. My father needs me.”
He laughed out loud, wounding me further.
“Needs you? For what?”
“Someone has to take care of him,” I protested. Duncan narrowed his eyes, grip tightening on the steering wheel.
“I’m sure your father can take care of himself. Leave, Ana. Tonight.”
I clutched the armrest, fighting the torrent of emotions inside my chest.
“And if I don’t?”
“I’m not giving you a choice.”
Sighing shakily, I looked at him pleadingly, but he paid me no attention.
“When I drop you off, pack all your stuff. I’ll be back to get you at nine.”
“I’m not going home with you!” I informed him haughtily.
“Oh, then where are you going to go?”
“I’ll go to Virginia’s apartment. She’ll take me in.”
He snorted derisively.
“And what will you tell her? Surely she doesn’t know.”
“Of course not,” I hissed, hating the fact that he was right. “She’ll understand, though.”
“No, she won’t,” Duncan replied. “You’re coming with me.”
“Duncan, I barely even know you!” I protested loudly. “You can’t expect me to go just because you say so.”
“You’ve known me for six years,” he said, sounding surprised. “If you don’t trust me by now…”
“Oh, fine,” I snapped.
Realizing we were almost to Le Grand Regency, where my father and I permanently rented the penthouse, I pulled my tote bag into my lap and firmly stared out the window, refusing to look at Duncan any more.
“Nine,” he said as the car pulled into a slot next to the ground floor of my building. I nodded stiffly, thanking him for the ride, then opened my door and got out into the rain. He stayed until I was inside the lobby, and then sped away into the night.
The night clerk of our building took a personal interest in every tenant, whether permanent or temporary. A theater major at one of the local community colleges, Joey Williams felt that it was his duty to keep an eye on me while my father traveled. When I walked into the elegantly decorated lobby, dripping water onto the tiled floor, he knew something was amiss.
“Are you alright, Ana?” was his first questions coming around the desk. I nodded, regaining my composure.
“Any calls while I was out?” I asked him. He shook his head slowly, eyes still narrowed at my appearance.
“You look terrible! I’m going to call your dad…”
“No!” I shouted, shocking him with the authority in my voice. “I told you, Joey, I’m fine. All I need is a little rest and privacy,” I added snidely. Taking the hint, he slouched back behind the desk and I crossed the lobby to the elevator, glad to find it empty. Collapsing on the seat, I buried my head in my hands. After a moment, the doors closed and the car lurched its way up the shaft. So much for keeping a low profile. I checked my watch. Two minutes before seven.
Letting myself into the penthouse, I immediately disengaged the alarm system next to the door. Although I was dying for a shower, the first order of things demanded that I pack my bags, so I climbed to the back of the storage closet and pulled out every suitcase we owned. Dragging them into my bedroom, I made a mental list of the most important things I needed, then began piling clothes into the bags. I found it much harder to discriminate among my belongings than I had expected, resolutely bypassing my photographs, cd collection, and sentimental knick-knacks. The unworn jewelry that my mother had left gave me pause, then I threw it in as well. All of my dancing gear went into the tote bag. Satisfied that I could live for a little while out of what the suitcases contained, I retreated to my bathroom to take a quick shower. Pulling off my clothes, I laid them neatly over the toilet seat so I could wear them again when I came out. As I unbraided my hair, I was dismayed to pull away a sizeable handful. The doctor had told me that hair loss could be one of the side effects of stress, but I had not believed him until now. Throwing it away, I got in the shower and bathed quickly, meticulously scrubbing every inch of my tired body, careful to avoid wounds inflicted by my father.
I dried hurriedly and put on some comfortable clothing, then braided my hair, trying not to think about the clump in the garbage can. Taking a final look around my bedroom, I moved all four of the suitcases into the living room and continued across the expanse into my father’s bedroom. As always, I slowed down once I entered his domain, moving around cautiously and quietly. It smelled strongly of Obsession and aftershave, with an undertone of leather. Walking to the side of his unmade king-sized bed, I knelt down and felt underneath the polyester skirt, hand searching for the soft leather gun case and its deadly resident. Finding them both, I pulled them out and carried them back into the living room, where I carefully zipped them out of sight in my tote bag. Looking at the clock, I saw that I had four minutes before Duncan’s return. As I bent over to hoist the first suitcase, the phone rang, startling me. Guilt gripping my stomach, I looked at the caller ID, positive that my father somehow knew of my treachery and was catching me in the act. It was not my father, but Victor Romano.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” his deep, familiar voice greeted me.
“Not at all,” I assured him, glancing at the clock. “Is something wrong?”
“No. You seemed distant at class tonight, and I wanted to make sure that you’re okay.”
No, I wanted to tell him, everything is not okay. My father abuses me, makes his millions on the narcotic black market, and I’m running away from home with a man I’m half afraid of.
“Everything is fine!” I exclaimed too brightly. “Thanks for asking. I appreciate it.”
The doorbell rang, interrupting his reply. New waves of fear crept up my spine, and I chided myself for being ridiculous. My father was in Florida and would not be home for days yet. Nonetheless, I looked through the peephole before unbolting the door to admit Duncan. He frowned at the phone, then looked at my luggage.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go,” I apologized to Victor. “Thanks for calling.”
Setting the phone down on the arm of the cough, I slowly met Duncan’s interested gaze.
“Who was that?” he asked in a tone that said he knew.
“Victor,” I coolly returned, watching the resentment light up in his eyes. He said nothing, only picked up two of my suitcases and headed for the door. I followed suit, taking a final look around the apartment as I walked out, the door slamming behind me. I pushed the last two buttons on the keypad and listened for the bolt to slide into place before hurrying after Duncan.
He kept his gaze carefully on the floor as we rode the elevator down into the lobby. Joey was nowhere to be seen, and I was thankful for small favors, questions left unasked. Duncan led the way to his car, which was now parked beneath the awning. Opening the trunk, he loaded all of my bags except the tote, which I kept close to my side.
Night had lowered the temperature, and the precipitation had turned to ice. The meteorologist promised three to five inches of snow by midnight. I thought of my father in sunny Florida, and of his fiancée Carrie, who would take my place in his aggression. The one time we had met she seemed very pleasant, and I was sorry for her and the mess she was inadvertently getting herself into.
“Do you have any other relatives?” Duncan asked, breaking my reverie.
“None that matter,” I replied bitterly. “Uncle Alberto and Aunt Lucia are my father’s relations. They’ve never cared much about me.”
“They’re part of his criminal activities?” he inquired, setting my cheeks aflame. I hated the way he stated facts so calmly, without mind as to how it made me feel.
“Yeah, they are.”
If he sensed my mood or not, Duncan was dauntless.
“What about your mother’s side? Any relatives there?”
I sighed, digging my nails into my pant leg. Why did he have to ask these questions?
“None that I know of. Mama never talked about her past.”
He nodded thoughtfully and remained quiet for the rest of the ride, giving me blessed relief from those prying, painful questions that I could not help but answer.
Duncan lived in a stone house with a stone chimney, located in the rural outskirts of Rochester. Finding it ironic that he lived in such a homey place, I nevertheless fell instantly in love with the quant country cottage, and for a moment managed to forget why I was here. Snow covered the grassy expanse behind the house, and the small pond out back had a thin layer of ice forming over its black waters. A giant live oak tree shaded the west side of the house, a long-abandoned tire swing hanging dejectedly from a sturdy branch. Parked next to the house a deep blue Corvette gathered snow under the windshield wipers, and I surmised the car belonged to Evan, Duncan’s roommate. Pulling up beside it, Duncan popped the trunk and turned off the ignition. Glad the snow fell lightly, I sloshed around the car, lifting one of my suitcases before Duncan could take all four. Wordlessly he led me up the cobblestone path to the roughly hewn wooden door that he proceeded to unlock. I followed him in, not sure what to expect from the inside of the small home.
“Evan,” he called, voice echoing around the great room and up to the exposed wooden rafters. Duly impressed by the décor of the little house, I took in the rustic cedar and knit woollier furniture centered around the large fireplace to our immediate right. The back half of the open space housed a small row of cabinets, a few appliances, and a beautiful wooden table engraved with a Celtic knot. A ladder in the back corner disappeared into the loft that overlooked the great room.
From the hallway a few feet ahead on our left, a tall, lithe redhead walked into the room. He met Duncan’s gaze first, then gave me a quick assessment before smiling.
“Hello, Ana. I’m Evan.”
As I shook his hand, I noticed that his eyes were a brilliant shade of green, so brilliant that they seemed to glow. I took my hand back quickly, feeling a shiver run down my spine. Whether or not he noticed, I could not say.
“She’ll be staying in the loft,” Duncan curtly told him. “Bring those spare blankets out of the trunk. When I come back we’ll carry up her suitcases.”
Not liking the sound of those words, I turned to him in alarm.
“Where are you going?” I demanded in a shrill voice. “Are you leaving me here alone?”
He smiled thinly, blue eyes catching the light’s gleam, then leaned closer to my face.
“I’m leaving you here with Evan. He doesn’t bite.”
At that both men shared a short laugh. I grabbed my braid nervously, eyes darting back and forth between them.
“Look,” I began, “this might not be such a good idea. I’ll go to Virginia’s for the night.”
“And then what?” Duncan asked calmly, the blue eyes that had been so hard a moment before now peaceful as a glacier. I met his gaze determinedly.
“I have a very large trust fund,” I haughtily informed him. “I can rent an apartment for a while.”
Evan, who had remained quiet during the exchange, spoke up from behind me.
“We’re just giving you a hard time, Ana. You’re welcome here for as long as you need.”
Trying to quell the panic rising in my stomach, I ignored him and stared at Duncan, trying to will him to agree with me. Instead, he moved towards the door.
“Give her something hot to drink,” he commanded Evan, then disappeared out into the night without so much as a glance in my direction.
Chapter One: Descent
Applause and cheers filled the private auditorium as the cast of the ballet glided on tsage for curtain call. I gripped Victor Romano's hand on one side and Duncan Irons' in the other. We had played the main trio of the ballet, an entire work composed and choreographed by our instructor, Anita Siroux. She had harbored a fascination that bordered on obsession with both men for as long as they had been dancing for her. The fascination was directed in a more moderate way at me as well; therefore, she paired me with one of them whenever possible. To have written an entire ballet centered around us sounded preposterous to someone ignorant of Anita Siroux's talented mind. Put simply, the woman was a genius in both music and dance, a long long of success in both genres propelling her comfortably through an amazing career.
Regardless of the history behind it, the ballet had been a success. As always, our performances were closed to family and friends alone; even they had to come with invitations. Siroux had one too many horror stories about psychotic stalkers to open our performances to the public.
Lights dying down, I turned to Victor with a smile, floating on a cloud of elation. He bent down and hugged me, neither of us paying mind to costumes or sweat. Very briefly, and with an eye on Duncan's turned back, he pressed a kiss on my lips, a smile of his own lighting up.
"I don't need to tell you how wonderful you were," he praised, whispering in my ear. "I'll never tire of seeing you dance." Before I could reply, Siroux appeared between us, full of chatter and compliments. Family members had come onto the stage to congratualte their happy relaties, and I was soon caught up in a crowd of admirers, Victor dilligently beside me. We laughed and accepted gushing glorifications of our performance, answering questions while we inched our way to the stage doors. Finally being forced to interrupt, we fell into the dark, cool world beyond the stage that restricted public access in relief, but not before I had met Duncan's cold look from across the room.
Walking down the hall, Victor and I talked of the show in glowing terms. When we reached my private dressing room, he made no move to continue on to his own. I paused in opening my door, a half-smile on my lips.
"What is it?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. Victor propped one arm against the doorway and gazed down at me, expression falling serious. Reaching up with one hand, he gently tucked a loose strand of hair behind one ear.
"I wish you would let me take you out to dinner," he said softly. "But I suppose Duncan wouldn't like that."
"Duncan doesn't control what I do," I automatically retorted, although I knew that to a certain extent, he did. "I would love to go to dinner with you, Victor. Now and any other time."
A pleased smile spreading across his dark features, he nodded slowly. "Good. You can get ready here?"
"Yes," I replied, "but I'll need to let Duncan know I won't be riding home with him. We carpooled tonight."
"Oh yes, musn't forget to report in to your parole officer," he teased. "Meet me in the foyer when you're ready, then."
There were four private dressing rooms in our studio, used only by the main characters of our shows during production week. Mine hosted a small full bathroom, kitchenette, couch, and television. Costumes hung on a rack over my shoes, and a long countertop ran beneath the makeup mirrors. I took off my costume and dropped it in the hamper. Our crew would have it clean and ready for the next performance by the morning. Walking across the cold tile floor of the bathroom, I stepped into the shower and began scrubbing with jasmine-scented soap.
When I got out of the shower, I turned on my cd player and began getting dressed to the angry vocals of Evanessence. Glad I kept a few sets of clothes hanging on the rack, I stepped into a pair of tight-fitting brown pin-striped pants and pulled on a white button-up blouse. Quickly braiding my hair and coiling it against my head, I was applying some light makeup when the buzzer on my door rang. Wondering who it could be, I crossed to the door and pulled it open. Evan McDarmott smiled at me and held out a bouquet of yellow roses. I gasped in delight, then threw my arms around his neck, careful not to crush the flowers. He laughed and returned the hug, then held me at arm's length, a broad smile glowing on his face.
"Ana, you were so beautiful. I had no idea you were that good."
I felt my face turning red, and so quickly I invited him into my room.
"Duncan and Victor were amazing," I reminded him, going back to my makeup. He was looking around my room, a bemused smile teasing his lips.
"This is nice," he remarked, peering into the bathroom, which was still steamy. "You should move out of your loft and come here."
I smiled. In the five days I had been with them, Evan and I had become good friends. Unfortunately, I could not say the same for Duncan. He was just as cool and removed as the very first night. Despite Evan's valient attempts to bring us together as friends, the chasm between Duncan and me seemed to be widening every day.
"I'm going to dinner with Victor," I informed him, putting the finishing touch of gloss on my lips. A hurt expression clouded his sunny features, yet I knew he was teasing.
"But I made a special dinner!" he whined. "You're never home for dinner anyway--always at rehearsal. "
Laughing, I placed my flowers in the refridgerator, then grabbed my purse and coat.
"See? Then it won't be any different from the usual."
Evan sighed, running a hand through his short red curls.
"Fine, do what you please. Guess I'll be eating alone again."
As we stepped into the hall, I locked the door to my room, interest piquing at his words.
"Alone? Where will Duncan be?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. A strange expression came over his face, and he shrugged.
"Oh...I don't know. I was just guessing. He's never home in the evenings either."
This was news to me, but unsurprising. The both of us had spent the majority of the last week in dress rehearsals, which often lasted late into the night. Afterwards, a group of us would go out to a club or to dinner; now that my little Porsche was out of the shop, I felt much freer to come and go as I pleased, and I had not walked in the door before 3am a single night that week. If this bothered Evan, he did not say, and I believe he respected the fact that I was an adult capable of making my own decisions.
Engaging in idle smalltalk on our way to the foyer, Evan and I rounded the corner to find Victor seated on one of the low couches flanking the doors. As he rose to greet us in one graceful movement, I was again struck by his sensuous good looks. It was not only his chiseled features, but his overpowering air of masculinity and self-confidence that made him so attractive. Dressed simply in black slacks and a dark brown complimentary sweater, he matched my own level of dress well.
"Evan, do you know Victor Romano?" I asked politely, reaching out to touch Victor's arm. The two men exchanged cool, knowing smiles, then glanced at me.
"Yes, we've met before," Evan replied. I nodded, unsure what to make of the tension in the air between them. Touching me lightly between the shoulders, Victor gave Evan a condescending smile.
"It was nice to see you again, McDarmott. If you'll excuse me...I don't like to keep a lady waiting."
Evan put his hands in his pockets, green eyes glinting in the dim lights of the foyer. When he smiled, I thought I imagined a slightly feral tone creeping into the atmosphere.
"Of course. And give my regards to your father."
Eyes tightening at the corners, Victor nodded curtly, then turned his attention to me. Taking my coat, he helped me into it, then put on his own. Opening the door, he guided me out into the cold parking lot with a firm hand to the small of my back. As we crossed the pavement, I glanced back to the studio, seeing Evan framed in the door, watching us intently.
Victor drove a matte black Viper that fit his personality like a glove. I strapped into the passenger's seat, nearly overwhelmed by the strong mix of leather and Obsession. He used the same cologne as my father, but on Mario Farinelli it had been powerful and passionate; on Victor, it was simply alluring. The car purred to a start, eager to carry out its master's bidding. Victor flipped on the headlights before pulling out of the parking lot onto the main road. I was suddenly overwhelmed by shyness, not knowing what to say to him. I knew Victor fairly well, for we had been dancing at the same studio and attending mass at the same cathedral for six years. His easy-going, talkative personality reminded me of Evan, but with a slightly darker, mysterious impatience.
"Where are we going?" I finally croaked, having found my voice. Smiling easy, my companion glanced over with glowing eyes.
'Luna, as long as you don't mind."
The Romanos were an old-money family much like my own, minus the sizable income from illegal activities. Victor dressed in Gucci and Armani, traveled around the world at his pleasure, and owned a collection of highly expensive cars. My father, when he was civil, reminded me of Victor. They shared the same passion for life, the same underlying energy that at times was nearly tangible. It was the flame that drew people in, made them want to be part of that special inner circle. Papa had met Victor; I suddenly recalled him mentioning that I should pursue a relationship with the rich, young Italian. But that was my father: always pushing me to stay within my social class or reach above it. He had severely disapproved of what he considered my lower-class friendships, saying that people were judged by the company they kept. It had always pleased him when I brought home my rich friends.
"You seem distant," Victor remarked, bringing me out of my reverie. "Let me know if you think you're too tired."
"I'm fine," I automatically answered. "It's just..."
"Nothing," I finally murmured, lapsing into an embarrassed silence. He made no remark, but gave me a small smile that left me pondering him once again.
The restaurant Luna found residence in an old Victorian house that had been bought and renovated by third-generation immigrants from Italy. It was a beautiful, stately building centered on a secluded lot in rural Rochester, one of the few wooded areas still completely intact. The long driveway was lined with solar powered lights and ornamental shrubs that gave way to a small parking lot in the front of the house. A handful of cars were scattered about.
As I stepped out of the car into the frigid night air, Victor came around the front and took my elbow, guiding me across the parking lot and up to the ornate front porch.
"Am I dressed appropriately?" I asked in a half-whisper an elegantly attired older couple came out of the solid oak front doors. Placing one hand on the small of my back, he gently pushed me towards the opening, catching one door above my head and ushering me inside.
"You look perfect," he assured me. "As always."
A waiter greeted us immediately, bowing and smiling thinly in his well-cut tuxedo. Quickly briefing us on the history of the restaurant in a heavy Italian accent, he peered down his long nose at Victor, recognition lighting in his small brown eyes.
"Two, sir?" he inquired. Victor nodded, then added something in Italian too rapid for me to follow. My grasp of our native language was weak, to say the least.
The waiter led us through the massive foyer, the main hall, and up a flight of stairs into the east wing. I was too busy admiring the furnishings and decor to pay much attention to the path we took, therefore finding in surprise that the waiter left us standing by a closed door. Bowing to Victor, he turned and immediately disappeared into the shadows.
"Are you ready?" Victor asked, looking down at me with excitement lighting his dark eyes. I nodded, unsure as to what he was referring. Placing his hand on the gleaming brass doorknob, he gently pushed open the door. The room's largest attraction was a walk-in fireplace roaring on the right wall; facing the fireplace, a wingback chair and a fainting couch threw long shadows on the mauve walls covered with rich tapestries and heavily ornate Victorian artwork. Directly ahead of us, a small table with two chairs comfortably filled the rest of the room. In a flourish gesture, Victor pulled out one of the seats and helped me into it after taking our coats. I noticed the formal dinner setting and the single red rose in the crystal vase as he walked around to sit across from me, immediately staring off into the fireplace.
"Do you come here often?" I asked. His gaze refocused slowly, reflecting the dancing flames.
"Every once in a while. My family is on good terms with the Bonellis," he replied, referring to the restaurant owners. "This room is private, purchased by my father almost twenty years ago. Everything in it belongs to us. You see that portrait?" he asked, pointing to a large oil painting hanging over the fireplace. I had not noticed it before, but now my attention was caught by the beautiful young woman depicted. Her dark hair flowed over round shoulders onto a daring red dress, no ornamentations detracting from her natural beauty save a delicate gold locket.
"She is beautiful," I whispered. Victor glanced at me, smiling.
"Yes. That is my great-grandmother, Katrina Romano. We all find it unnerving, but my mother was sentimental about such things."
"I don't believe I've ever met your family," I commented. "Do they ever come to your shows?"
"My mother is dead," he said in a shockingly matter-of-fact manner. "And my father...well, he is most often busy in the evenings. Too busy for me, at any rate," he continued with a wryly arched eyebrow. "But he has heard much about you."
I smiled, not exactly sure how to take the comment. Victor was sgazing at me with that intense, lustful light in his eyes. I had almost grown used to it after all these years. Almost. Busying myself by looking at the menu, it took only a moment fo me to realize that everything was written in italian.
"Do most of the patrons here speak Italian?" I asked innocently. He laughed.
"This is an exclusive restaurant," he reminded me. "Highly exclusive. Half of New York would give an arm and a leg to be allowed on the premises, let alone eat here. The Bonellis hand-select their patrons for every evening. I've heard that the waiting list is months long."
I shook my head a little at the pride in his voice. Some rich-boy mentalities never changed.
"Months long, you say?" Then how did you manage getting us in tonight? Surely you haven't been planning this for months!" I teased him with a sly grin. Victor chuckled, a deep rumbling that vibrated the table and sent chills up my spine. Dark eyes gleaming, he reached across to grab my hand, then lifted it to his lips.
"Merely biding my time fo rthe right moment to convince you to say yes," he teased in return. "Like I said, we own this room, and we are on good terms with the Bonelli family. Getting a reservation wasn't the problem."
He appeared about to say more when the door opened and our waiter returned. After brief discussion, Victor made our orders in Italian, speaking slowly for my benefit, but I caught only a few familiar words. Once finished, the waiter bowed slightly, then backed out, closing the door behind him.
"So, what about your family?" Victor asked. The question caught me off guard; his tone was very deliberate and almost anticipatory.
"You've met my father. My mother is dead."
He leaned forward, locking our gazes. I had never noticed how alive Victor's eyes were, almost glowing from an inner source. It was a mesmerizing effect.
"I meant your extended family. Aunt, uncles, cousins..."
"I have one paternal uncle, Alberto. His wife is Lucia, and they have an adopted son from Greece, Alexander. They've never shown much interest in me. I guess you could say there is a sizable amount of animosity in that relationship."
"Why don't they like you?" Victor pressed, still holding my gaze. I hesitated before answering, aware that this was uncharted terriroty.
"My mother. They didn't approve of her, because she was half Romanian. Before Papa had met her, she was travelling with a gypsy caravan, believe it or not. After they married, she moved here to America with him. My father's family was outraged that he had not married what they called 'pure blood.' He was supposed to have been in an arranged marriage, but eloped with Mama before the wedding. Since I am only three-quarters Italian, they consider me lesser than they."
Sighing, I weighed my next words carefully.
"After my mother's death, my relationship with Papa went downhill. He blamed me for her death...and..."
I knew that I should stop there, but as I stared into Victor's eyes, I felt unable to stop, compelled by some outward will.
"See, Victor, Papa operates a black market drug ring, among other illegal things. The whole family is involved, except for me. When I told him that I wanted nothing to do with the business...That's when things started to get rough."
A frown creased Victor's forehead, and he seemed taken back by my confession, but urged me to continue with surprising intensity.
"Are you sure you're ready to go there?" I asked, half-jokingly.
"Ana," he said, "I'm ready to go anywhere with you."
I inhaled deeply, trying to gather my words, knowing that my story had to come out the right way.
"It began with a simple slap in the face one night when I made him angry, but got worse real fast. He's always had a quick temper, and after Mama died, it only got worse. I was a handy target, something to take out his aggressions on. Especially when I told him I wanted nothing to do with the business. Things continued in that vein for a few years. Then he went away for a few days, flew over to Rome for a conference. When he came back, he treated me very oddly, almost like a stranger. That lasted for a few weeks. Then he would bring home who I assumed were his business partners--and I don't mean the internet business. He'd find excuses to go out, leaving them there overnight. They would try to...Well, I locked myself in my room with Papa's gun. Fortunately, I never had to use it..."
I trailed off, realizing what I had told Victor. No one had heard the extent of these terrible deeds; I worked valiently to keep all traces of my dark history covered. These were secrets meant to be taken to the grave, and here I had just spilled everything to Victor. Well, almost everything. Breaking our eye contact, I pushed away from the table, hurrying to stand by the fire. Tears burned behind my eyelids, threatening to spill at any moment. Making the mistake of taking a breath, my resolve crumbled and tears began to stream silently down my face.
I was aware of Victor's presence behind me right before his hands touched my arms. He was soft and warm, and when he slowly turned me around, I did not resist. One thumb came up to wipe the tears away from my cheek, caressing in a gentle, carying way. I tried to speak, but he rested a finger on my lips, dark gaze burning brighter with the reflection of the fire. This was a side of Victor I had never seen before, this overwhelming display of compassion and control.
He pulled me into an embrace, arms wrapping protectively around me. My face rested in the shallow between his neck and shoulder, so close that I could feel the pulse from the artery. The scent of his cologne was intoxicating.
"You are an amazing woman, Ana," he whispered into my ear, breath stirring the hairs that had loosened from my bun. "Now I understand how special you are. Now I understand why they all want you."
I wanted to ask to whom he was referring but as I began to form the words, he leaned down and kissed me, sending all questions straight out of my head.
I leaned into him, every fiber of my being wired alive, aware of every aspect of the moment, from his soft and gentle kiss, the places our bodies touched, the firm grasp of his fingers around my arms, to the heat emanating from the fire in waves.
Slamming the silver Mercedes into park, Duncan Irons turned the ignition and got out of the vehicle. It was a perfectly clear night, with the moon providing plenty of light for him to walk up the path to his house. He opened the door and went inside to find Evan sitting in front of the fire, reading. At his entry, the older man looked up in surprise.
"You're home early," he commented dryly. Duncan's icy blue gaze swept around the room once, then traveled up to the unlit loft before settling back on the redhead. Crossing the room in two strides, Duncan took the book from Evan's hands and snapped it shut.
"Where is she?" he demanded angrily. Evan stood up, frowning.
"She didn't tell you?"
"No, she didn't tell me," Duncan replied in a low voice. "I haven't seen her since the curtain call."
Narrowing his eyes, Evan walked around the couch, stopping in front of Duncan.
"She went to dinner with Victor Romano."
"What?!" Duncan roared, eyes glinting silver. Grabbing Evan by the throat, the blond man lifted him straight up from the couch. "You fool! You of all people should have known better than to let him be alone with her!"
A shocked, indignant expression on his face, Evan clawed at Duncan's fingers, but Duncan was beyond reason. Throwing Evan against the wall with a sickening crunch, duncan was out to his car in seconds. There was only one place Victor would take Ana.
His deft fingers had unpinned my hair, and as he continued to kiss me, he simultaneously unwound my braid, running his fingers through my silky brown hair. I had experienced my fair share of activities with young men in the past, but none of their frantic pawing could compare to Victor's gentle touch. Once my hair was completely loose and flowing around my waist, he broke away from my lips and traveled down to my neck, exploring the left side of my throat with his mouth, occasionally flicking out his tongue, almost as if he were tasting me. Closing my eyes to enjoy the sensation, I jerked suddenly as he nipped the delicate skin, exclaiming in surprise. Pulling away from me so that I could see his face in clear detail, his fingers found the first button on my blouse, easily slipping it loose and pulling the collar open wider. He leaned over me, and I could hear him inhaling the aroma of my perfume-tinged skin. Whispering my name, he pulled back again, face just inches from my own, eyes shining black in the dim light. And then, for the countless time that night, he smiled at me, revealing a pair of long, translucent incisors. I watched him touch his fangs carefully, knowing that I should be afraid, but I felt no fear of this beautiful man. Almost detached, I exhaled slowly as he bent down, black opaque eyes meeting mine.
"Welcome to your world, Ana."
His fangs slipping into my neck easily, the sensation bordering on pleasure. My breath came in shallow gasps as his tongue darted around the wounds he had inflicted. I could feel my own warm blood draining down into the neck of my shirt, staining the white fabric. My gaze roamed lazily around the room, rolling to look at our abandoned table, and I suddenly realized that we were not alone. Men and women had appeared from nowhere, dressed to the hilt. As I focused, I saw that they watched us with hungry eyes and sharpened teeth. My fingers tightened around Victor's shoulders, and I whimpered. His head snapped up, mouth and throat stained with my blood. His eyes had now fogged over completely black, but I knew with measurable convictions that he could see the spectators.
With one accord, the watchers began to close in on us, bodies pressing against the blood-stained fainting couch. As Victor crouched protectively over me, snarling like an animal, I finally felt the cold fingers of fear grip my racing heart. Just as the first manicured hand reach for my head, a familiar voice roared my name through the misty night.
The hungering vampyres scattered like chaff in the wind as Duncan came hurtling towards us. He tackled Victor, and together they crashed to the floor. I heard a cry of pain, then silence. I tried to sit up, but found myself unable to move, weakened from a considerable loss of blood. The heady diziness was beginning to fade, slowly exchanging with sharp pain. I sank back into the couch, vision growing cloudy.
Cool hands touched my face.
"Lie still," Duncan's voice commanded softly. "You're losing too much blood. He didn't get to finish the job."
I opened my eyes to see him leaning over me, heart sinking as I gazed into opaque black eyes.
"What's going to happen?" I whispered, suddenly sure that I was about to die. Duncan took one of my hands and squeezed it reassuringly.
"You'll be alright," he replied, then glanced over to his left. Struggling to follow the quick line of his gaze, I saw Victor move into the small pool of light, still wet with my blood. Duncan hesitated for a moment, then leaned down so that I could barely hear his voice.
"I'm sorry it had to happen like this," he murmured, then abruptly left my side. Feeling myself teetering on the verge of darkness, I barely made out Victor taking his place, watching his face loom close before I sank into black.
"You can't keep them away forever," a familiar voice said, tinged with anger. "No matter how hard you try, Duncan, they will eventually succeed in seeing her. Have you forgotten how important she is?"
"Don't mock me, Evan. You may have been the one to set me to the task, but it is mine to carry through. She is under my protection, and until the day that the Council sees fit to remove her from it, then I have the final word on what is best for her."
"I am no longer confident that your judgement is clear."
"Save it for the Council, Evan. Your jurisdiction only reaches so--"
Duncan cut off suddenly when I stirred.
"Ana? Can you hear me?"
I opened my eyes slowly, finding myself lying in my own bed in the loft of Duncan's home. The room was dark except for a single lamp across on my dresser. Duncan's coldly handsome face appeared in my line of sight, eyes shadowed with fatigue and worry. Next to him, Evan frowned angrily, but when he saw me looking at him, all traces of his displeasure disappeared.
"How are you feeling?" he asked softly, green eyes shining peculiarly in the half-light.
"I've been better," I replied, my voice scratchy and raw. "Is someone going to tell me that what happened last night was a dream?"
Duncan cut his eyes to Evan, who looked about to answer.
"Evan," he spoke, a warning in his tone. The other man closed his mouth, glowering. Duncan cleared his throat, turning all the way to look at Evan.
"I think Ana and I need to be alone," he suggested.
Exhaling sharply, Evan got to his feet and walked away without a second glance. Duncan watched his descent, then turned back to me, eyes searching my face.
"How do you feel, Ana?" he asked, voice surprisingly soft. I struggled to prop myself on my elbows, frowning.
"I'd feel a lot better with some explanations," I told him. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I suppose you would."
Falling silent for a moment, he noticed the picture on my nightstand, a picture of Victor and myself in full costume before one of our performances. Brows drawing together, he sighed again.
"It wasn't supposed to happen like this," he offered. "We've had it planned for years, but Victor ruined that for all of us. Impatient fool."
"Had what planned?" I demanded, beginning to grow irritated with his evasions. "Stop avoiding my questions."
"We had planned the right time to tell you about your heritage. Your bloodlines. About...us. This," he said, gesturing to my bandaged throat. "Most people don't believe in the occult or the existence of 'dark' beings: witches, werewolves, shapeshifters. Vampyres. But, as you witnessed last night, the legends are all too true. Of course, the facts have been terrifically perverted, but the idea remains the same."
I sank back into my pillow, letting his words wash over my incredulous confusion. My nature was to scoff in disbelief, but my experience the night before prevented me from doing so.
"Tell me everything."