For centuries, Mara has been a creature of the night: mysterious, alluring, and fiercely independent. Although she has been pursued throughout her life—by Vampire and mortal alike—she has never allowed love to claim her. But when she discovers she’s pregnant, Mara finds herself torn between two unforgettable men…
Book 5 in the Children of the Night series
Kyle Bowden is the mortal father of her unborn child. A gorgeous, golden-haired artist full of passion and life, Kyle was ready to give his soul to Mara—until he learned her terrible secret.
Logan Blackwood is the Vampire she created nine-hundred years ago. Now a Hollywood millionaire with all the dark seductive power of his kind, Logan still longs for the woman who turned him.
With time running out—and her Dark Gift fading—Mara must decide what is best for the miraculous new life growing inside her. But first she must embrace the feelings in her heart—and choose one lover…for all eternity.
Mara stood on the balcony of her home in the mountains of Northern California. Staring out over her domain, she lifted her gaze to the endless indigo vault of the sky, to the moon that had been her sun since the night she became a Vampire so many centuries ago. Even though she could now walk freely in the light of day if she was so inclined, she was still most comfortable in the darkness she had inhabited for thousands of years.
In the silvery wash of the moon’s light, the world around her looked peaceful. The people who lived in the small town located in the shallow valley below were all sleeping now, dreaming their innocent mortal dreams, blissfully unaware that one of the Undead lived in the sprawling old house near the top of the mountain.
After a time, she let her mind expand, homing in on the few people in the world that she cared for.
Roshan DeLongpre and his witch wife, Brenna, were living in Venice. Vince Cordova and his pretty blonde, blue-eyed wife, Cara, were at home in Porterville. At the moment, they were sitting outside, enjoying the quiet of a star-studded Oregon night. Their son, Raphael, and his bride, Kathy McKenna, were in bed, wrapped in each other’s embrace. Mara wondered how Kathy was enjoying her new life as a Vampire.
Mara had once offered to bequeath the Dark Trick to Kathy. As Mara’s fledgling, the girl wouldn’t have been affected by the Dark Sleep, but Kathy had wanted Rafe to be her Master. Mara couldn’t blame the girl; after all, if one had to be bound to a Master, it was always more pleasant if it was someone you loved and trusted, someone who would guide you patiently, and gently teach you all the things a new Vampire needed to know in order to survive. Someone who would never abandon you, or betray you. Not long after being turned, Kathy had sold her bookstore in Oak Hollow, and she and Rafe had moved to Porterville.
Raphael’s twin brother, Rane, had finally made peace with what he was. He and his wife, Savanah, had also bought a place in Porterville. Just now, Rane and his bride were at home, sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace, their three-month-old daughter, Abbey Marie, sleeping peacefully on a blanket between them. Savannah had not yet accepted the Dark Gift her husband was so eager to give her, but they had both agreed it would be best to wait a few years, until Abbey was older.
Mara told herself she wasn’t jealous, that she didn’t envy any of them the love or the happiness they had found, but deep within the hidden recesses of her heart where she didn’t look too often, she knew it for the bald-faced lie it was. She was Mara, the oldest and most powerful of her kind. Vampires, male and female, envied her. Men sought her favors, willing to do anything she asked just to be near her. She should have been blissfully happy and content, and yet her existence lacked any real purpose or meaning. She was finding it more and more difficult to find a reason to rise each night; she was growing increasingly weary of her self-imposed lonely existence.
She had taken mortal lovers from time to time, but she had loved none of them. Afraid to fully trust any man, be they mortal or Vampire, she had always withheld a part of herself, never letting any of the men she had known get too close, or see too much.
Until she met Kyle Bowden. She had been captivated by him from the moment she first saw him standing at the foot of the Sphinx with a sketch pad in his hand. He had been hatless in the sun; his long brown hair highlighted with streaks of gold. The sleeves of his white shirt had been rolled up, revealing sun-tanned skin and muscular arms. She had watched his hand, quick and confident as it moved over the paper, and wondered if he possessed that same confidence with women.
Eager to meet him, she had purposefully bumped into him with a murmured, “Sorry.” He had turned toward her, stared at her a moment, and then blurted, “Good Lord, but you’re beautiful.”
Before meeting Kyle, she had intended to find a place to go to ground, to bury herself deep in the earth in the Valley of the Nile and sleep for a year or two, perhaps ten, but with Kyle at her side, the world no longer seemed like such a dreary place; the lethargy that had plagued her disappeared, and she found herself wanting to travel the world again, to see it anew through his eyes.
As giddy as a school girl with her first crush, she had quickly fallen head over heels for him, charmed by his innate sweetness, by the sincerity and adoration in the depths of his deep gray eyes. For the first time in her existence, she had given her heart to a man, something she had sworn she would never do. She had foolishly trusted him with the truth of what she was, and seen the look in his eyes turn from love to revulsion. She remembered that night so well. They had been reclining on the loveseat in his studio, their arms and legs intimately entwined…
Kyle reached for a bowl of black grapes and offered her one. With a slight smile, she shook her head. “No, thank you.”
“You never eat with me,” he remarked, popping the grape into his mouth. “Why is that? Are your table manners so terrible?”
“Of course not,” she replied. “I’m quite tidy.”
“Tidy?” He repeated with a grin. “That’s an odd way of putting it.”
“I have odd tastes.”
He ate another grape. “Odd? How so?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“I love you, Mara, with all my heart. I want to know everything.” He set the bowl aside and traced the curve of her lower lip with his forefinger. “Everything. I want to know what makes you laugh and what makes you cry, and why you sometimes look at me strangely, as if…”
“As if I want to eat you up?”
“Yes, something like that.” He withdrew his hand, his brow furrowing. “But that’s not the only thing.”
“I don’t know how to explain it, how to put it into words…”
She ran her fingertips along the side of his neck, her nostrils flaring. “Try.”
“Your eyes…sometimes, like now…they change…”
Her eyelids fluttered down and she drew a deep breath. She was getting so comfortable in his presence, she sometimes let her guard down. Especially in times like these, when they were lying close together, when the scent of his blood was almost overpowering.
She had to be more careful, had to remember that he didn’t know what she was.
“Mara? What are keeping from me?”
Back in control, she opened her eyes. “Trust me, Kyle, if I tell you, you’ll never look at me the same again.”
“Trust you? It’s you who doesn’t trust me. If you did, there wouldn’t be any secrets between us.”
He was right, of course. She didn’t trust him. She didn’t trust anyone, but maybe he was right. Maybe it was time to find out if he truly loved her, or if they were only empty words.
“Fine.” She rose to her feet. “You want the truth? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
And so saying, she unleashed her power and let him see her for what she was, fangs, red eyes, and all.
It was a mistake, just as she had known it would be.
He had jumped off the love seat and practically flown across the room in his haste to put some distance between them. “Get away from me, you blood-sucking fiend!”
His words had shocked her, her insides going cold as the love in his eyes swiftly turned to revulsion. She could have mesmerized him, made him forget what he had seen, but she had been too proud. He couldn’t accept her for what she was, and she couldn’t accept that…
She shook the unpleasant memory from her mind. She loved being a Vampire, loved everything about it. She wouldn’t have gone back to being mortal again even if it was possible. Not for Kyle. Not for anyone, or anything, else. She had seen the world change and grow through the centuries, witnessed the rise and fall of kings and queens, of kingdoms and nations, observed the Dark Ages and the Industrial Revolution, seen the birth of innumerable inventions that the people of her day would have hailed as miracles - things like space travel and the automobile, iPads and Kindles, satellite television, wireless computers, Twitter and Facebook, and cell phones that did everything but cook and clean house. She grinned wryly. In her day, a roll of toilet paper would have been acclaimed as a miracle.
For the first time in her long existence, she felt the weight of past centuries sitting heavily on her shoulders. These days, there was little in life that surprised her; few things that she hadn’t seen or done a hundred times. Twining a lock of hair around her finger, she wondered if perhaps it was time to end her existence, to find out what, if anything, waited on the other side.
It would be a new adventure, she mused, a place she had never been before. Was there another life, another existence, after this one? She had seen no physical evidence of an After Life. If one did exist, would her soul find rest in some heavenly paradise? That seemed doubtful. It was far more likely that she would be tossed into a sea of endless damnation, forced to spend eternity in the deepest pit of a cruel and unforgiving Hell.
With a sigh of resignation, she closed her eyes as thoughts of her past washed over her.
She had been raised a slave in the house of Chuma, one of Pharaoh’s trusted advisors. She had been a month shy of her fifteenth birthday when Chuma presented her to Shakir, a wealthy ally, as a reward for a service well done. Perhaps that had been Hell enough. Mara had not taken kindly to being a slave in Pharaoh’s household, but she had been treated well enough. Captivity in Shakir’s household was another thing entirely. He had been a cold and cruel man, one who demanded instant obedience, one who did not hesitate to wield the lash at the slightest provocation, real or imagined. Shakir had allowed only female slaves under his roof. Many in Chuma’s household had mocked Shakir behind his back, saying it was unseemly for a man of Shakir’s position to have women working in his stables, caring for his armor, preparing his meals, acting as his butler, driving his chariot, but Shakir had ignored their taunts. He refused to share his quarters with male servants. There were no eunuchs in his household staff, no stallions in his stable.
Shakir claimed to love women. Old and young and in between, he professed to love all the female slaves in his household. And he bedded them all, from the oldest to the youngest, whether they were willing or not, eager to prove his manhood by the number of children he sired. His touch had made Mara’s flesh crawl. For some reason she never understood, her blatant distaste for Shakir’s touch soon made her his favorite. At first, he had found her loathing amusing, her temper tantrums entertaining.
Desperate to escape both his bed and his whip, she had run off many times in the ensuing five years until, finally wearying of her constant attempts to leave him, Shakir had put her in chains.
Mara had thought her life a hell before, but now it was much, much worse. Shakir kept her chained in a small cell in the bowels of his residence. Food was delivered once each day, unless the wrinkled old slave, Kiya, forgot. Shakir refused Mara the ease of a pallet, the warmth of a blanket, the comfort of a light. He even denied her the opportunity to bathe except on those nights when she was brought, still in chains, to his bedchamber. Once she was bathed and powdered and perfumed, he chained her to his bed and used her as he saw fit. She would never forget his cruelty or the humiliation of being bound and helpless, forced to submit to whatever he saw fit to demand of her.
She had begged the other slaves in his household to kill her, or to bring her a knife so that she might take her own life, but the other women feared their master’s wrath too much to help her.
And then, late one night, when she was huddled in a corner of her cell, her back raw from the lash, the candle outside her cell sprang to life and a shadowed figure appeared beside her. One minute she had been alone in the dark, the next he was there, a dusky-skinned man of medium height. A long black cloak fell from a pair of broad shoulders, the hood pulled low over his face, shadowing his features, save for his eyes, which seemed to glow from within from some dark inner fire.
“Who are you?” She had scrambled as far away from him as her chains would allow, the pain in her back forgotten. “How did you get in here?”
“I go where I wish,” he had replied. “No one can keep me in. Or lock me out.” He took a step toward her. “Tell me, my raven-haired beauty, are you happy here?”
“Of course not.” She recoiled when his hand snaked out from under his heavy black cloak to brush her cheek. “Leave me alone!”
“And if I refuse, what will you do? Cry for help? Who is going to hear you down here, I wonder?”
“Who are you?”
“I am Dendar, master of the night.”
He moved closer. She could see little of his face or form in the near darkness of her cell. But she could see his eyes, red and glowing now, like Hell’s own light.
When he put his arms around her, she struggled for a moment, and then went still. She had prayed for death, and now Death stood before her.
With a sigh, she closed her eyes and waited. Soon, her misery would be over. Soon, she would discover the Great Mystery that awaited everyone.
There was a moment of pain, and then there was pleasure beyond anything she had ever known. She felt weightless, as if her spirit had left her body far behind and was now floating effortlessly in the air. She had no fears, no worries. There was only a deep, sensual pleasure she hoped would last forever.
And then he was gone, and she was alone in her cell, confused by what had happened. Had she imagined him? Had it all been a dream? She lifted a hand to her neck, shivered with revulsion when she felt two tiny puncture wounds. When she licked her fingertips, she tasted blood. Was it hers?
Near dawn, pain unlike anything she had ever known engulfed her body. Moaning softly, she writhed in agony on the cold stone floor until, after what seemed like an eternity, she pitched headlong into a chasm deeper and blacker than anything she had ever known or imagined. Her last conscious thought was that, at last, death had found her.
When next she opened her eyes, she was lying naked on a slab, about to be mummified, no doubt to be put into Shakir’s burial chamber where, upon his death, she would serve him throughout all eternity. She didn’t know who was more surprised to find that she was alive – herself, or the handful of men who ran screaming out of the chamber when she sat up. She had stared around, confused, her senses reeling under a visual and audio assault unlike anything she had ever known. Heedless of her nudity, she had leaped lightly from the slab, hungry in a way she had never been hungry before. The frantic beating of many hearts drummed against her ears.
She hadn’t known what she wanted until, in his haste, one of the fleeing men tripped and cut his hand on a sharp stone.
The warm, coppery scent of fresh blood wafted through the air, sweet, tantalizing. She had pounced on the luckless creature before he’d had time to scream.
Other men had come, armed with daggers and spears. Impervious to their puny weapons, she had effortlessly swatted them all aside and left the building.
Filled with power, she had gone to Shakir’s residence. After she had avenged herself on him, she had freed his slaves, and then she had burned his house to the ground.
She had found the vampire who had turned her against her will the next night. Still in the throes of acclimating to her changed life-style, nearly mad with her hunger for blood, she had attacked Dendar without mercy.
Mara shook her head at the memory. She had prayed for death and the Fates had granted it to her, only not quite in the way she had imagined.
“Be careful what you wish for,” she murmured to the man in the moon, “lest you get it.”
Thinking of Dendar now, she regretted destroying him. But, back then, angry and confused, afraid of the changes his bite had wrought, her only thought had been to kill him. Had she known how much she would glory in being a vampire, she might have kissed him instead.
Kyle Bowden stood in front of the canvas, the paint drying on the brush in his hand as he looked at the portraits of the woman he had drawn from memory. The first canvas, painted in the blush of first love, depicted Mara as she had looked when he met her - beautiful, exquisite, almost ethereal, with her glossy black hair and flawless, alabaster skin.
The second canvas, the paint still wet, showed her as she truly was - a beautiful monster with blood-red eyes, and sharp white fangs.
Mara, the Vampire.
Even now, months after she had told him the truth of what she was, he found it hard to believe that the woman he had adored, the exquisite, sensual creature he had taken to his bed, wasn’t a woman at all, but a soulless creature like the one who had killed his father and left his mother barely alive. His mother, may she rest in peace, had lingered between this world and the next for almost a month before death carried her away. He had been a week shy of his thirteenth birthday when she breathed her last. There followed one foster home after another until he turned sixteen and took off on his own.
For a time, Kyle had tried to find the Vampire who had killed his father during the War, but by then, it was too late. The War was over and finding one particular Vampire had been virtually impossible.
Kyle blew out a sigh. He had tried to put Mara out of his mind, tried to forget the halcyon nights they had spent in each other’s arms, but to no avail. He imagined he could still smell her scent on his clothing, on his sheets, his pillows. He told himself it was impossible and yet, each night when he climbed into bed, her essence seemed to surround him. The merry sound of her laughter echoed in his mind, his skin tingled from the memory of her touch. She had been an incredible lover, unlike any woman he had ever known. He grunted softly. A foolish statement, that, when she wasn’t really a woman at all.
This morning, he had risen early and put brush to canvas, hoping that by painting her as the monster she truly was, he could somehow excise her memory from his mind and heart, but to no avail.
Vampire or temptress, seeing her portrait only made him yearn for all the more. He moved to stand in front of the first painting. He had captured her likeness, but not her spirit, nor the true look in her eyes. She had often seemed older than she looked, wise beyond her years; now he knew why. Her physical appearance had belied her age, but the truth had lurked in the depths of her eyes, those incredible emerald green eyes that had watched centuries come and go.
He swore a vile oath. If he lived to be a hundred, he would never forget her. He laughed humorlessly. If he lived to be a hundred, he would still be an infant compared to her. Little wonder she had known so much about Egypt’s history, he mused glumly. She had lived it.
As for being an incredible lover, he thought bitterly, that was to be expected. She’d had hundreds of years of practice.
And probably hundreds of lovers, as well.
The thought of her with other men tied his insides in knots.
Dammit! How was he ever going to forget her?
In an effort to forget Kyle Bowden and the horrid way he had made her feel, Mara decided to return to Southern California and mingle with the Hollywood crowd. In days past, she had met a movie producer or two, a star or two. It had been easy enough to charm the rich and the famous, to finagle an invite to a cocktail party here, an opening night there. Not only was she a beautiful woman, but she possessed the innate charisma of a Vampire, something few men, rich or poor, old or young, could resist. Movie star and star maker alike, they had showered her with gifts – jewels, stocks and bonds, automobiles, vacations in exotic locales. Thanks to their generosity through the years, she now owned a fabulous home in the Hollywood Hills, a house in the mountains, and a sumptuous villa in Italy. She had always enjoyed mingling with the famous and the infamous; on occasion, she had thrown a few lavish parties herself.
Of course, the Hollywood of today was nothing like the Hollywood of the thirties and forties. Movie stars had been stars back then. There had been a mystery about them, a larger-than-life presence that had projected beyond their screen image. Stars like Gable and Bogart, and her favorite, the ever-appealing bad boy, Robert Mitchum. He had smoked too much, drank too much, and she had adored him. She had been on the set when he filmed “Out of the Past”, totally captivated by his performance, by his broad shoulders and heavy-lidded eyes. She had once over-heard him remark that acting “sure beat working.” He had been a star who defined cool. How she missed him.
Mara shook her head. Movie stars today…they just weren’t cut from the same cloth. Only a few of them – Newman, Redford, Nicholson - were even worthy of the name. Most were just celebrities, rising out of nowhere, shining brightly for a few brief moments, and then disappearing just as quickly, unremarked and soon forgotten.
Mara had been in town less than week when she heard that one of the major producers was hosting a little get-together at his palatial estate in Brentwood. Knowing she would be welcome, Mara donned a slinky white gown that was slit provocatively up one side, stepped into a pair of silver, spiked heels, and arrived at the house, unannounced and uninvited, just after ten.
The producer, Sterling Gaylord Price, welcomed her with his usual lecherous smile. Sterling was pushing seventy if he was a day, but you would never know it to look at him. No doubt a skilled and expensive plastic surgeon was responsible for shaving ten years off Price’s appearance. And everyone knew sixty was the new forty.
“Mara!” he gushed, kissing her soundly on both cheeks, “it’s been too long. Too long. Where have you been keeping yourself?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she replied with a saucy grin. She linked her arm with his as they moved from the foyer to the front parlor. “I love what you’ve done to the place.”
He beamed at her. “Alison’s a whiz at decorating.” He gestured at a tall, slender young woman with bright blond hair. “She did the whole place herself.”
“Amazing.” Mara glanced at the scantily-clad Mrs. Sterling Price, who was holding court amidst a group of sun-tanned young men. By Mara’s reckoning, the girl, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-two, was the fifth Mrs. Price. Like all the others, she was no doubt a whiz at calling a decorator, writing checks, and bleeding Price for everything she could get before he tired of her and moved on to the next over-eager starlet who was willing to trade favors for fame and fortune
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Sterling said, giving Mara’s arm a squeeze. “Maybe we can get together for drinks, just the two of us, sometime next week.”
“Maybe,” Mara replied with a coy smile. When hell freezes over. Sterling was a notorious playboy, always on the lookout for the next future ex-Mrs. Price.
She chatted with him another few minutes, relieved when some pouty-lipped starlet with flaming red hair and cleavage she hadn’t been born with called him away.
Mara spent the next hour flirting with several young men, all of whom were movie-star gorgeous, even though none of them truly appealed to her. They were too young, too pretty, too eager.
A handsome waiter bearing a candy-laden silver tray paused to offer her a truffle. Lost in thoughts of Kyle, she took it without thinking and popped it into her mouth. Dark rich cocoa and chocolate liqueur flowed over her tongue like liquid silk, followed by a rush of panic. What had she done? She hadn’t eaten mortal food in over two thousand years. She had thoughtlessly nibbled on a fig soon after she had been turned, and been violently ill.
Not wanting anyone to see her, she hurried toward the double doors leading to the veranda. Outside, she took a deep breath, her hands clutching her stomach, and then she frowned. She didn’t feel sick at all; didn’t feel anything except a strong desire for another chocolate truffle. Maybe two.
“How can that be?” she muttered. “Mortal food is like poison to us.” Curious, she went back inside, her gaze darting around the room until she spied the same waiter.
He smiled knowingly when he saw her hurrying toward him. “Delicious, are they not?” he asked with a wink.
“Very.” Mara picked a plump one from the tray and carried it outside. She ate it slowly, savoring the way the chocolate melted on her tongue, the way it flooded her senses with an odd sense of euphoria.
Nothing in all the world had ever tasted so good.
Or scared her so much.
What was happening to her?