The Dark Room
Heart’s Blood, Book 1
by Kate Hill
eBook BIN: 05832-01870
Tall, pale and with a body to die for, Marcellus sends her libido into overdrive. Dedra finds there’s more to this gorgeous photographer than she’d ever imagined. He’s sexy. He’s seductive. He’s eighteen hundred years old and in need of a woman just like her.
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. You’re a decade older, Dedra. Ten years sexier, woo hoo!” Dedra Wolfe’s close friend, Ruby, sang the words to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”
Except for fans of drag queen singing group The Elixir Maidens, no one would guess that the tall, slim, lusciously beautiful redhead with the impeccable makeup job was really a man.
Ruby and Dedra had met nearly ten years ago when they’d both worked on the same movie set — The Elixir Maidens doing a cameo as a club act in the film and Dedra acting as stuntwoman to one of the lead actresses. She and Ruby had liked each other on sight and became good friends, keeping in touch through phone and email and visiting each other a few times a year. They were close enough for Dedra to know one of Ruby’s true secrets that made his drag queen persona seem run-of-the-mill. The redhead was also a vampire. He hadn’t come out and told Dedra about it, but she had experience with vampires in the past and she knew all the signs. Ruby was, in fact, the only male vampire she trusted. The straight ones in particular were arrogant, self-centered sex maniacs. At least that had been her experience.
Right now, on her thirtieth birthday, the last thing she wanted to think about was the mistakes of her youth. In particular, a mistake in the form of a hit-and-run vampire lover.
“Thanks, Ru.” Dedra grinned, accepting the colorfully wrapped birthday present and stepping aside to allow Ruby into her hotel room. “And thanks for trying to cheer me up about the disintegration of my youth.”
Raising his eyes to the heavens, Ruby leaned forward and kissed Dedra’s cheek. “Honey, I am sick and tired of hearing you put yourself down because you’re turning thirty. You are a fantastic stuntwoman and are more beautiful than ever, so what’s the problem?”
Dedra sighed and led the way to the kitchenette where dinner waited on the table. “The problem is, where did the time go? I mean, my twenties seemed to fly by. How did you feel when you hit thirty?”
Snorting with laughter, Ruby said, “Love, I can’t even remember how I felt when I hit three hundred, let alone thirty.”
Ruby looked so young and gorgeous it was easy to forget he had already seen over fifteen hundred years of life.
“Dedra, listen to me.” Ruby’s smile faded and he reached across the table for her hand. “I’ve told you, if you would like me to Change you, I’ll do it. But you need to be sure of why you want to be a vampire. It can’t just be because you turned thirty. Besides, what does a woman in her twenties have that a woman in her thirties doesn’t?”
“The ability to go without underwire?”
They both broke into laughter and Ruby sat back in his chair and shook his head.
“Ruby, I appreciate your offer. I know most vampires don’t pass on their immortality lightly.”
“Remember, immortality is a fable,” Ruby warned. “We can still die, especially if injured by silver or fire. Many severe injuries that would kill mortals will kill us too.”
“I know, but –”
“And you’re right about me being very careful about who I choose as my vampiric offspring. You’re a good person, Dedra, and I trust you. If I didn’t, I never would have let you know so much about my personal life, including my vampirism.”
Dedra wrinkled her nose. “Girl, I guessed that long ago. You know that.”
“Yes, and I could have wiped your memory free of your suspicions. You know that.”
“You got me there. So, what did you get me?” Dedra placed the package on the table in front of her and unwrapped it. Inside was a pamphlet that read Marcellus Photography. Every woman has a dark side. “What’s this?”
“Marcellus Oakes is one of the best photographers The Elixir Maidens have ever worked with. He’s been doing photo shoots for us for years. He used to travel a lot, but now he works mostly from his home studio.”
“I can see that,” Dedra commented, glancing through the pamphlet. It seemed Marcellus lived in a replica of a medieval castle. There he photographed his subjects in gothic-style rooms. Many of the photos were done in sexy lingerie in suggestive poses. Some were even done in the nude. “Ru, thanks for the gift and all, but this really isn’t me.”
“It’s the inner you.” Ruby smiled. “Like Marcellus says, every woman has a dark side. You need to see that your life isn’t over because you’re thirty. Once you see yourself in Marcellus’ photos, you’ll realize you’re sexier than ever.”
“Is Marcellus like you?”
“A drag queen?” Ruby asked innocently, reaching for a bottle of wine and filling their glasses.
Dedra raised her eyes to the heavens. “No, not a drag queen. You know what I’m talking about. Is he a vampire?”
“I’m not free to disclose that. You’d have to find that out for yourself.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Ruby, there is no way, no how, I’m showing my ass to some sleazy vamp.”
“Marcellus is not sleazy. He’s a great guy and very professional. And he’s very trustworthy. Would I send you to someone who wasn’t? Trust me. You will have a wonderful time and the session will make you feel like a new woman. I promise. Marcellus will make you feel comfortable, and he won’t say or do anything out of line. Lady, you need to get out of this stupid turning thirty depression. Look at yourself. You’re not even dressing like you used to.”
Dedra glanced down at her baggy T-shirt and jeans. Underneath her body was as curvy and athletic as ever, but she just felt different, like she should lay off the snug jeans and shelf-bra tank tops. It was crazy.
“All right,” Dedra sighed. “I’ll go for this photo shoot, but you can’t believe it’s really going to make me feel any different.”
“You’ve got nothing to lose, right?”
“What about my dignity?”
Ruby giggled. “Impossible. Never you.”
Dedra glanced at the pamphlet and flipped it to the last page. Her gut tightened at the sight of Marcellus’ photo. Ruby hadn’t mentioned anything about the guy being gorgeous. Damn.
He had vibrant blue-gray eyes, long kinky brown hair that reminded her of a pirate, and a trimmed goatee through which peeked the cutest mouth she’d ever seen. The upper lip had a small, perfect bow and the lower was full, inviting a woman to bite and suck it. She felt heat pool between her legs just from looking at his picture.
Ruby cleared his throat and when Dedra looked up, he was staring at her with a gloating little smile. “Hot looking, isn’t he?”
“Ruby, I hate you,” Dedra said, half teasing, half serious. “If you think I’m going to strip buck naked and let him take my picture, your wig is on too tight.”
“I don’t wear wigs. This is natural.” Ruby ran a hand through his long, reddish mane.
“No. No way.”
“Please? I’ll go with you if you want.”
“I don’t need you to go with me because I’m going nowhere.”
Ruby folded his arms beneath his padded bra and stared at her hard. “You’re afraid.”
Dedra raised both eyebrows. One thing she couldn’t stand was being called a coward. She knew Ruby was baiting her and tried to ignore it.
“Marcellus is very gentle,” Ruby continued. “And considerate.”
“If he’s all that then why don’t you ditch your boyfriend Hagen and take the photographer instead?”
“First off, I love Hagen,” Ruby huffed and Dedra nearly smiled. Ruby knew how to get under her skin, but Dedra also knew how to return the favor. “Second, Marcellus is straight. If you really don’t want to accept my gift, that’s fine, Dedra. You’re ashamed of your appearance. I understand.”
“Who said anything about me being ashamed of my appearance?”
“Well, you can fit two more people in those jeans you’re wearing.”
“So this isn’t you.”
“All right, Ruby. I said I’d go to the stupid photo session, so I’ll go.” Dedra sank back in her chair, looking far more irritated than she felt. In truth, she wanted to get a look at Marcellus in the flesh. The picture was most likely airbrushed. In real life the man was probably dog ugly.
“Good.” Ruby beamed. “Now let’s eat. I’m starved.”
* * *
Marcellus’ gaze fixed on his opponent’s rich brown eyes as they circled each other, their stances sure and gleaming swords poised for battle.
Their blades clashed and for several moments they fought. Marcellus’ shorter, slighter opponent moved with admirable grace and swiftness. Finally they called a truce and lowered their weapons.
“Excellent,” Marcellus said. “I’m glad to see you’ve kept up with your training, Ruby.”
Brushing away a tendril of reddish hair that had escaped from his ponytail, Ruby grinned. “You’re the one who taught me the importance of knowing how to defend myself. Before you, Marcellus, I hated anything that reminded me of macho fools like my father.”
“You’re a better man than he ever was,” Marcellus stated.
Ruby cocked a groomed eyebrow. “You’re probably the only person I allow to call me that.”
Marcellus snorted. To Ruby, drag didn’t end when he left the stage. Though he wore sweatpants and a T-shirt for their practice, Ruby spent most of his life in makeup and heels. In truth he was far more feminine and beautiful than most women. He was also one of the finest people Marcellus had ever known.
From the moment he’d set eyes on the young man over fifteen hundred years ago, he knew he was meant for the Change. Ruby’s inner strength tempered by compassion made him an ideal choice to wield the power of vampirism.
After placing their weapons aside, the pair left the stone dungeon beneath the replicated castle Marcellus had built in upstate New York. They walked to the kitchen where they poured a drink and sat at the breakfast table, gazing out the picture window at the moonlit field behind the castle.
“I wanted to talk to you about the woman you’ll be photographing tomorrow,” Ruby said.
“Yes. The birthday gift. Don’t worry. She’ll like the pictures. I’m an expert. I could make a bag lady look like a supermodel.”
“That’s not the problem,” Ruby said. “She’s a lovely woman and has a great body.”
Marcellus shrugged. He’d photographed many beautiful women in his day, so he wasn’t particularly impressed. “Then what’s the problem?”
“I told you she’s feeling a little vulnerable right now. You know that stupid mortal age thing. I told her you’d be nice.”
Marcellus grinned. “I’m always nice.”
“Unless you’re up against one of our kind abusing his power.”
That was Marcellus’ true purpose in life. Photography was a hobby to him, and any past careers just a means to survive. He took vampiric power very seriously and believed they weren’t meant to abuse their gifts, but use them to fight the world’s evil. Marcellus never faltered from that path. He’d learned the hard way, however, that it was a lonely path.
“I promised her there was nothing to worry about with you,” Ruby said.
“Of course she has nothing to worry about. Ruby, what are you trying to say?” Marcellus stared at him hard.
“Nothing.” Ruby examined his fingernails and took his lower lip between his teeth in a manner Marcellus well recognized. The younger vamp was definitely hiding something.
“It’s just that I think you two will hit it off.”
“Oh no.” Marcellus raised his eyes to the heavens and stood, pacing the room. “Ruby, I have told you time and again not to interfere in my personal life.”
“Marcellus, listen to me.” Ruby stood and placed his hands on Marcellus’ shoulders. “You can’t shut yourself off forever.”
“I’m not shut off. I’m reasonable.”
“You’re afraid,” Ruby said, then flinched, as if expecting Marcellus to fly into a rage.
In truth he felt like ranting and raving, but it would do no good. Not with Ruby. The man just couldn’t keep from matchmaking and it drove Marcellus crazy.
“If I wanted a companion other than my offspring, I can find one for myself. I don’t need you to do it for me under the pretense of giving your friend a birthday gift.”
“It’s not a pretense. And don’t you dare take your anger out on her for spite. Be nice.”
“Do you think I’m crazy?”
“Let’s see.” Ruby folded his arms across his chest and flung him a sarcastic look. “You’ve spent your entire life looking for trouble among the worst of our kind. I’ve seen you near death more times than a mortician. And you’ve vowed to live your life alone.”
“Romantic relationships aren’t necessary. Blood sharing with willing donors and occasional sex are adequate and friendship with a human, any human, is a deadly mistake.”
“I understand why you feel that way. I really do, Marcellus. But you have to realize the past is over and –”
“The past can repeat itself. You’re definitely old enough to realize that.”
The look of sympathy in Ruby’s eyes as he reached out to place a hand on Marcellus’ shoulder nearly sent his anger off the scale. He shrugged off his offspring’s gentle touch and snapped, “Ruby, I mean this in the most affectionate way, if you ever try to interfere in my life again, I will personally pull out your fangs with a pair of pliers.”
The redhead ran his tongue over his teeth and winced. “Don’t even joke about it, Marcellus.”
“Who’s joking?” Marcellus demanded, leaning so close their noses almost touched. “I have a good mind to cancel your friend’s session.”
“Don’t.” Ruby grasped his wrists tightly. “Please. She really needs this ego boost. And you’ve already been paid.”
“I haven’t deposited the check.”
Sighing, Marcellus shook his head. “All right. All right. But if you think anything is going to come of this, you’re the one who’s crazy.”
* * *
The next day, Dedra arrived at Marcellus’ home. She had to admit the placed looked impressive, just like a small castle, mythic and beautiful in the late afternoon sun. Built of stone with two towers on each side of the main structure, it made her feel as if she’d stepped into a fantasy movie. A brook with a stone bridge ran across the front yard and various fruit trees, including apple, cherry and peach, were scattered across the lush green lawn. Behind the castle was a slight drop leading to a private lake.
A sign painted on a boulder directed clients to a door in the ivy-covered side of the castle. After a moment’s hesitation during which Dedra considered turning around and forgetting this stupid photo session, she opened the door and walked into a dimly lit, drafty foyer. A brighter light shone through the door of a room to her left.
A slim blond man dressed in jeans and a white shirt stepped out of the room and smiled at her. “Ms. Wolfe?”
“Hi. I’m Andy, Marcellus’ assistant. He’ll be with you in a moment. Please come in and have a seat.”
She followed him into the waiting room and sat on a carved wooden chair cushioned in red velvet.
Andy walked across the room to an antique desk where he made an entry into the computer, then turned it off.
“I’m on my way home for the evening,” he said. “Before I go would you like refreshments?”
“No thanks. I’m fine.”
At that moment Marcellus stepped into the room. To her surprise he was every bit as attractive as his photo.
As a stuntwoman, Dedra had seen up close and personal what society called the world’s most handsome actors. To her most were a major disappointment. Without airbrushing they were nothing more than scrawny bozos or steroidal freaks who’d had so much plastic surgery that if someone lit a match too close to them it smelled like a fire in a rubber factory.
Marcellus, however, was the real thing. From his thick, dark hair and melting blue eyes to his long, muscular legs encased in snug denim, this man was hot. Best of all he didn’t have that half-starved zombie look that turned her off in the movie actors she worked with.
He met her gaze and Dedra felt a jolt of desire that made her face flush. Damn. She hadn’t reacted like this to a man since —
“Marcellus, this is Dedra,” Andy said.
“Hello.” He extended his hand and she shook it, noting his grip tightened on hers and lingered a bit longer than necessary. “Pleased to meet you.”
“You too,” she said.
“If you don’t need me, Marcellus, I was on my way home,” Andy said.
“Go ahead. See you on Monday.” Marcellus glanced briefly at his assistant then fixed his gaze on Dedra again.
“I see you’ve brought a selection of outfits.” Marcellus nodded toward the bag slung over her shoulder.
“Yes. Ruby said to bring two or three.”
“If you follow me, I’ll show you where you can change.”
They stepped out of the room and walked down the long stone corridor and up a narrow, winding staircase. A draft, as one would expect in a castle, blew through the place and Dedra’s stomach tightened with anticipation. She’d spent most of her life as a daredevil — from martial arts to performing stunts that could result in death. Why she felt this mix of excitement over a stupid photo session confused her.
It wasn’t the session, but the guy. Everything about Marcellus was a turn-on and just as she’d suspected he was a vampire. She hadn’t missed his small, sharp fangs when he’d smiled or the expression in his eyes that revealed his centuries of life. She’d seen enough of his kind to know exactly what he was.
The last time she’d been this hot for a vampire the fucker had stomped on her heart. Damn Ruby. He knew what she’d gone through in the past and he also knew the kind of men she liked. Why had she let him talk her into this?
Maybe because deep inside she needed some excitement, and not the kind that came from jumping out of helicopters or driving burning cars into brick walls.
She wanted that gut-tightening, nipple-tingling sensation a woman only got in the company of the right kind of man.
Or in her case the wrong kind. She’d always liked the bad boys, but after Iago, she’d sworn them off. Never again would she allow her heart to be broken like that. The next time a seven hundred year old man pledged his undying love, she’d tell him where to shove it.
Still, that didn’t mean she had to live the rest of her life like a nun.
They reached the top of the staircase and walked down a wider hallway with photos hanging on both sides. Most were of nude or semi-nude men and woman sprawled in seductive poses on antique furniture. The photos were both elegant and erotic.
“These are really something,” she remarked.
“Thank you.” He glanced over his shoulder at her. “I’m looking forward to working with you. Ruby was right.”
Dedra raised an eyebrow. “About what?”
“He said you’d make a lovely subject.”
“I hope he was right about what he said about you.”
“And that is?”
She cast him her hairiest eyeball. “You’d be professional.”
Marcellus stopped so suddenly she nearly crashed into him. His large blue eyes fixed on hers and the hint of a smile touched those chiseled lips peeking through his rich brown goatee. “I’m always professional. You may change in here.” He gestured toward a door to her right. “When you’re finished, please join me in the room across the hall.”
Glancing at him over her shoulder, she stepped into the room he’d indicated, then closed the door behind her and turned the lock. Light from the setting sun shone in through the picture window and she glanced around the medieval-style bedroom, complete with a canopy bed and tapestries on the walls. Another door to her left led to a modern bathroom.
She dumped her bag on the bed then walked to the bathroom and rested her hands on the pedestal sink. Staring at herself in the mirror, she sighed. Dedra certainly didn’t scare easily, but this situation unsettled her, mostly because of her attraction to Marcellus. Ruby had done this on purpose, and not just because he thought she had the turning-thirty blues. That nosy queen was a hopeless matchmaker and Dedra had fallen right into his trap.
Ruby was generally a pretty good judge of character, so she wondered if Marcellus had the same lustful feelings toward her. Not that it mattered. Dedra had no intention whatsoever in tying herself up with another vampire.
On the other hand a stress-relieving fuck wasn’t entirely out of the question.
“What the hell is your problem?” she said, curling her lip at her reflection. She’d had her makeup and hair done professionally just that afternoon, wanting to make the most of the photo shoot, and she had to admit she looked pretty damn good.
There was no point in beating around the bush. Damn. Why did she have to say that? The way Marcellus looked, she wouldn’t mind him beating around her bush…
“Just keep your cool,” she murmured, walking back to the bed and unzipping her bag. She dumped out the sexy outfits she’d brought and realized they were probably too skimpy. They’d show off her every curve and lots of skin in between.
Thrusting aside her concerns, she decided to enjoy the night. Tomorrow it wouldn’t mean anything more than a happy memory.