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Authors: P.G. Forte

fallen embers

There's a thin line between blood and madness.

Children of Night, Book 5

Early Twelfth Century. When the half-civilized Conrad Quintano stumbles upon a stacked battle on an isolated beach, his first instinct is to walk away. What does he care if a bunch of worthless vampires kill each other? But a dying ember of chivalry compels him to rescue the pretty female vampire in distress—radically altering the course of his already cursed life.

Present Day. Marc Fischer continues his desperate search for Elise, while his newly single twin sister, Julie, is hooking up with everything that moves—at least that's how it looks to a jealous Armand. As the twins' unusual abilities grow stronger, Marc makes the mistake of trying to protect Julie from what he's learned about their true nature.

Meanwhile, Conrad's relationship with Georgia—the vampire he saved centuries ago—is about to alter yet again. They've each been keeping dangerous secrets. Secrets with the power to destroy the entire clan. Now, with Julie's life threatened, the Fischer-Quintano vampires will learn the most painful truth of all. No lie lies hidden forever.

Warning: Proceed with caution. Storm warnings and small craft advisory are in effect as romantic alliances form and re-form at random. Expect to encounter any or all of the following: old hippies, new friends, erroneous conclusions prematurely jumped to, and best-laid plans gone seriously awry—thanks in no small part to the actions of a certain impetuous Spaniard.

Fallen Embers

P.G. Forte

Dedication

This one is for my mother.

“To bring the dead to life

Is no great magic.

Few are wholly dead:

Blow on a dead man's embers

And a live flame will start”

—Robert Graves

“Abruptly the poker of memory stirs the ashes of recollection and uncovers a forgotten ember, still smoldering down there, still hot, still glowing, still red as red.”

—William Manchester

Chapter One

There is a very simple reason for all the myths and misconceptions regarding vampires, one simple truth beneath the falsehoods and the fears. The truth and the reason is this: there is nothing simple about vampires. They are amazingly complex creatures, an amalgam of man and mystery first spawned on some dark, forgotten dawn in some dim, forsaken corner of the globe.

Every vampire carries the mark of both parents within its cells—or upon its soul, if you believe in such things. Each is stamped in the image of the man or woman it once was and infused with the essence of that creature who sired it.

It is fashionable these days, among humans, to say that when you take someone to bed, you are bedding not just that one person—or the two, or three, or however many your personal taste dictates—but everyone they have ever bedded as well.

Vampires have always known this to be so.

Somewhere along the eastern coast of Britannia

Early Twelfth Century

The salt air stung Quintano's eyes as he made his way through the woods that skirted the deserted coastline. It burned in his nose and the back of his throat, and with each breath he drew came memories. Of his youth. Of his childhood. Of those halcyon days when he was but an ordinary man living an ordinary life—before The Dark claimed him.

These unlooked-for reminders were just the latest bit of misery afforded him by this misbegotten mission on which he'd been sent. In their own way, those memories were every bit as unpleasant as the hungry weeks he'd spent lost in the mountains, or even the near-fatal trap he'd walked into tonight and from which he'd only narrowly escaped.

Hardship didn't bother him, nor did bloodshed. The six or so murders he'd added this evening to the scores he'd already committed over the past few centuries, certainly had not concerned him. Had he seen a way to avoid tonight's deadly adventure, he would probably have ignored it. Those he'd killed had been vampires. They were beasts like himself and therefore better off dead.

The fact that his mission had failed so spectacularly was also of no importance. It was unfortunate, he supposed, that among the deceased was the very vampire he'd been sent here to meet, the reputedly powerful leader with whom his mistress had been hoping to form an alliance. But, if he were honest, he'd have to admit he derived an odd sense of pleasure from having thwarted her. Lavinia would be displeased with him. No matter. She'd been displeased with him before.

Either she'd get over it, or she would not and, frankly, one was much the same as the other. If the worst punishment she could think to mete out was to send him away again, out of her sight, out of her bed, making his way alone in the wilderness for months at a time on one all-but-hopeless mission after another, then Quintano would welcome her continued displeasure.

He despised himself for craving her as he did. The fact that his body still longed for her even now, even knowing what she was, that he physically ached for her touch, was repugnant and further proof that he had sunk beneath any hope of redemption. Being banished from her presence for whatever reason, or none at all, was a blessing, albeit a painful one. It was a torment, yes—but one he embraced and would most willingly endure.

At last the small harbor town he'd been seeking came into view. He paused and glanced at the sky, gauging the time. It was just on midnight. He had hours yet to pass before he could hope to find someone he might convince to give him passage across the channel. In the meantime, he'd do well to try and find someone to eat. He had no wish for a reprise of the near-disaster that had marked his voyage here.

The sea spray had sharpened his appetite to an unexpectedly dangerous edge on that earlier crossing and several times he'd been on the verge of taking the entire crew. It was ironic that it was his mistress's cruelty that allowed him to survive. The months of near-starvation she'd subjected him to had given him the mental discipline needed to keep his inner beast in check. Once they'd reached shore, he'd quickly found a more suitable victim, someone who needed killing as badly as Quintano needed to live. He could only hope that tonight's hunt would bring him someone equally deserving of a quick and merciless death.

The stars were barely visible in the sky overhead, obscured by wispy clouds. All the same, perhaps they heard his silent pleas, for as though in answer to his prayers, the sound of armed conflict reached his ears. At this time of night, and in so isolated a cove, it could be nothing honorable.

Quintano crept closer, following the sounds that emanated from the seaward side of a nearby dune. The scene that met his eyes once he'd reached the top and peered over the rise was everything he'd been hoping for, and everything he hated. The battle that raged in the lonely campsite was stacked—four against one—and the one a mere girl, armed with only a blazing brand she'd pulled from the fire and with which she was valiantly attempting to fight off her larger and better-armed foes.

The thrill of battle rose within him and the anticipation of a heavy meal filled Quintano with satisfaction. He pulled out his sword in preparation of joining the fray. His excitement turned dull, however, when he got a closer look at the combatants. All five were vampires.

His mood soured. Their blood would not provide him with the sustenance he sought and he could not care less if they all killed each other. Indeed, he hoped they would. The world could only be made better by their deaths. He was on the brink of re-sheathing his sword and resuming his lonely trek when something about the girl stopped him.

Perhaps it was her determination that caught his eye. Her refusal to give in to defeat, even despite the overwhelming odds, struck an all-too-familiar chord. She faced her attackers bravely, with her head held high, wielding a weapon that was every bit as much a danger to her as it was to her opponents—maybe more so.

Her long, blonde hair had come loose during her struggle and the wind gusting off the water kept catching strands of it, blowing them across her face, into her eyes and perilously close to the business end of her torch. It was surely a matter of “when” not “if” her locks would catch fire and set her ablaze. He was half-tempted to stay and watch out of nothing more than morbid curiosity. How long before she finally managed to immolate herself? How many of the others could she succeed in taking down with her?

As he watched, the woman lost her footing in the loose sand. Her opponents closed in. Quintano was surprised to find himself holding his breath until she'd righted herself. Once she was back on her feet, her attackers quickly retreated.

Quintano rubbed absently at his chest. He was disgusted by the men's cowardice. Had they really wished to end the girl's life, they should have been more willing to risk their own in the attempt. He would have termed the odd pang he was feeling to be a mix of pity and admiration had he believed himself still capable of such emotions. More likely, it was nothing more than simple regret. What a waste of potential. She was a comely thing, trim and well-formed, above average in height. She must have been little more than a girl when the change had been forced upon her. Had she been allowed to live, she would probably have made someone a very capable wife. She fought well too. The soldier in him couldn't help but appreciate that.

Again he thought to turn away. Again he found himself unable to do so. He cursed his indecision. Neither the conflict, nor its almost certain outcome concerned him in the slightest. But he was a man of action. It was not in his nature to do nothing. The next time the woman's foot slipped and she fell to one knee, he found himself charging out of the woods without giving the matter a moment's thought. He reached her side just in time to deflect the blade that would likely have severed her arm.

Before his opponent had time to recover from his surprise at being so suddenly thwarted, Quintano swung his sword again and relieved the man of his head. The three remaining males immediately reoriented their attention on him, but by then the woman was once again on her feet. When Quintano's sword felled a second vampire, the remaining two turned and ran—like the cowards they were.

Grunting in satisfaction, Quintano tore a piece of cloth from the tunic worn by one of the dead vampires and used it to wipe his blade clean. “Well, I guess we've seen the end of them.”

The woman made no reply. She was breathing heavily, still holding the blazing branch defensively in front of her and eyeing him warily. Perhaps she was in shock and had not yet realized she was safe?

Casually, so as not to alarm her any further, Quintano stepped away, putting a little more distance between them in an effort to reassure her. He sat on one of the logs that had been washed up on the beach and continued to tend to his sword. “You might want to put the torch down,” he suggested calmly. “Before you accidentally set yourself alight.”


You
might want to tell me what you think you're doing here, before I set
you
alight—
not
by accident.”

Quintano chuckled, too caught between amusement and disbelief to take offense. “Is this how the inhabitants of Britannia are wont to express their gratitude? It seems a strange sort of custom to me.” It would explain a lot however—his failed mission, for example. Perhaps what he'd taken to be an ambush had been meant as a convivial gesture, a party, hosted in his honor. “I should think it was obvious. But as it seems to have escaped your notice, allow me to explain it to you. I just saved your life.”

“Yes, well, perhaps you did. And I thank you for your courtesy. But I did not ask for your assistance and I'd likely be more grateful if I knew
why
you did it. What do you expect to receive in return for your gallantry?”

“I seek nothing in return.” As to why he had done it, he couldn't even explain that to himself. “And I'd hardly term it gallantry. It was a bit of exercise, no more. I stumbled across your dispute quite by accident and didn't favor the odds.”

“Didn't favor the odds?” The woman's voice held a hint of amusement. Her eyes twinkled in the firelight. “What precisely do you mean by
that
, I wonder?”

Quintano shrugged. “Four against one? I enjoy a brawl as well as the next man, but that didn't strike me as a very fair fight.”

“You are correct, of course.” The woman tossed the branch back into the fire, then brushed the dirt from her hands. “Though there were six to start.” She gestured at two smoldering piles of ash that Quintano had failed to observe. “It was not at all fair, for they were hopelessly outmatched. Perhaps I should have taken a moment to tie one of my hands behind my back before responding to their attack?”

Quintano smiled. “I see you think well of yourself. As is your right, for I confess I've never before seen a woman wield a weapon so proficiently.” He took off his boots and shook the sand from them before adding, “I suppose I should apologize for having spoiled your evening's entertainment. Had I but known you were merely toying with these men I would have left you to your own devices. What was your argument with them anyway?” He glanced around at the isolated cove and barely managed to suppress a shudder when another wave of memories rose up to torment him. “And why choose this locale for a battleground?”

His companion shook her head. “I never said I was displeased with your intervention. Indeed, you saved me a good deal of trouble.” She nodded at the blaze. “It was the fire that lured me in. I was hungry and cold. I hoped to find sustenance here, but I fear whoever had made this camp had fled by the time I arrived.”

Quintano frowned at this reminder of the woman's true nature—and of his own growing hunger. “How lucky for them.”

“As to the subject of our ‘argument' as you've termed it, it's a common enough story.” The woman fisted her hands on her hips and gazed challengingly at him. “These men very kindly offered to lay with me, an offer I politely refused. They took offense and attempted to convince me otherwise.”

“They must have been most surprised when you resisted them so strenuously.”

The woman's voice held a warning note as she continued. “Apparently so. But lest it's crossed your mind to make me a similar offer, stranger, I beg you to reconsider. Despite any gratitude I might presently feel toward you, you may be assured that this is a point I will argue with you as well. Just as strenuously. I choose for myself what I do and with whom. You'd do well to remember that.”

“I have told you once already; you have nothing I want.” However pretty and spirited she might be, she was still a vampire, still a monster. It was bad enough he was already forced to bed one of those on too regular a basis; bedding two of them was more misery than even he deserved. “And even were that not the case, even if I desired you most ardently, I'd still take nothing from you that was not offered to me freely.”

The woman's gaze turned curious. “Would you give your word on that?”

“You would take the word of a stranger? I would have credited you with more intelligence. But, aye, for what it's worth. You have my word. Do not think of yourself as special, in that regard, however, for I would give the same assurance to anyone.”

He'd been on the opposite end of that equation far too much of late and he did not take pleasure in coercion. There were those, no doubt, who would claim turnabout was fair play, that he should do unto others what had been done to him, but he had no stomach for such games. His conscience smote him, though, quite suddenly, and he sighed. Honesty forced him to amend his previous statement. “Hold. Let me make two exceptions to that rule lest I brand myself a liar. Those I meet in battle and those upon whom I feed—I have taken their lives without apology, and will continue to do so. In that I have no choice.”

“How very strange you are.” Cautiously, the woman retreated a few steps to seat herself on a boulder, still keeping herself within easy reach of the fire. “Why would you take the lives of those you— Wait, what are you called, soldier?”

“Called?” Quintano stared blankly at her.

“Yes. How are you addressed? By what name or title are you known? I realize we have not been properly introduced and perhaps you consider it unseemly for a lady to be so bold as to ask outright, but given the manner of our meeting it seems foolish for us to stand on ceremony with one another. Will you not tell me what I might call you?”

“I'm known as Quintano.”

“Even more odd. You
do
hail from the lands across the channel, do you not?”

“I do.”

“Well then, that can hardly be the whole of your name. I know something of the language and customs of your people—not much, but enough to serve me. I believe ‘Quintano' means fifth, does it not? The fifth of what, exactly, are you? Or were you perhaps named for that strange device I've heard tell of, the one the French use for training jousters?”

Quintano shrugged. “My mistress must have found it fitting for some reason, I suppose. Although whether she considers me a number or a tool, I neither know nor care. Perhaps it's both.”

“Were you born a slave that your mistress should have had the naming of you? Did your parents never refer to you by anything else? Or were you taken so young that you can no longer recall your previous life?”

Quintano glared at her. “Of course I remember it—though I do so to my sorrow. Neither slave nor monster was I at my birth. I was a free man once upon a time.”

“Then, as I said, surely you must once have been called something else. Why will you not tell me what name you used to go by?”

“Because I am no longer the man I once was. That man is dead. It is fitting his name die with him.”

“Oh, nonsense. Surely, there must be something left of the man you used to be?”

“No. He is deceased entirely. And if I choose not to dwell on his memory any more than I must, that is my right. I pray you will cease speaking of it also, 'fore I lose my temper and repent my decision to save you.”

The lady tossed her head. “Oh, very well. Quintano it is. And, since we're doing away with all formality, you may call me Georgia, if it pleases you.”

“I thank you, but I doubt our acquaintance will be of sufficient duration to warrant my calling you anything.”

Georgia's eyes narrowed. “Shall I take that as a threat?”

“You may take it in whatever manner you like. If it pleases you to feel yourself threatened, you are by all means free to do so. Perhaps you choose to be offended by my words and wish to fight me over them? If that be the case, I am happy to oblige you. If, on the other hand, like me, you feel you've had enough bloodshed for one evening—and enough conversation—you may take yourself hence and leave me in peace, which I would like even better. All I
meant
was that I am hungry and intend to leave here shortly to go in search of food. As it seems unlikely we shall ever meet again, I see no reason to be burdened with remembering either you or your name.”

“Ah, yes. That was what I meant to ask you. Thank you for reminding me. A moment ago you said that you have no choice but to kill for your sustenance. Why do you say that? It seems a very strange exception to make. Surely anyone you feed upon would prefer you rob them of everything else, if you'd but spare their lives?”

He scowled at her. “Aye, I'm sure they would. But what of it? What we want in life and what we receive are seldom the same thing. Nothing but their life's blood will suffice. If I am to live, then they must die.”

“But that's exactly what I mean. You don't actually need to
kill
those you feed upon, do you?”

“Why do you pretend not to understand my meaning? Or would you try and persuade me we do not share the same nature, you and I?”

“No, not at all.” She shook her head. “I know you for what you are,
Invitus
. I recognized you from the start. Although these poor, deluded creatures—” she indicated the dead men, “—seemed not to have recognized either of us as such. Strange, is it not? Perhaps we were the first of our kind they'd encountered.”


Invitus
?” Quintano repeated the strange word curiously. “I fear I am not familiar with the word.”

Georgia's eyes widened in surprise. “Are you not? It's quite common. It's the name given to those of us who were taken without consent and made to suffer most grievously for our new life. Perhaps your clan employs a different term?”

Quintano shook his head. His “clan” employed no special words that he was aware of to describe what they were—and why should they? They were all the same: vile creatures, miserable and damned. He nodded toward the dead vampires. “Are you suggesting that these knaves might have actually chosen this existence for themselves? That they were
not
forced into it? If that be the case, I'm doubly pleased to have killed them.”

Georgia shrugged. “I know not how they came to be, but it would not surprise me to learn that the choice was theirs to make. It is for most of us, after all, and not so difficult to imagine. The desire to alter one's destiny, to live for centuries without the need to toil for one's food, without the specter of age or infirmity—it lures many.”

“And have they no concern for the blood that will be on their hands, or the stains on their souls, the eternal damnation they may be choosing for themselves? What of the innocents whose lives are forfeit for the sake of their survival—have they no thought for them?”

“It seems most unlikely. Indeed, I do believe you are the first I've ever encountered to express such thoughts aloud. I would say that the majority of us consider ourselves to be superior beings, and therefore well within our rights to take what we please—even more so when it causes no harm. Who were you, before your turning, that you should find it so hard to understand such things? Were you already a man of such wealth and importance that you felt no need to improve your station or better yourself? Or were you perhaps a priest that you should still be so concerned with the state of your soul?”

“I was a soldier,” Quintano snapped. “A man of no importance, and with no claim to virtue. And yet
never
would I have chosen to be as I am now. To be turned into a ravening beast, forced to kill for each meal—how is that an improvement to anyone's station? And how is it
you
find it hard to understand such things? Why do
you
not fear for your soul?”

He stopped abruptly when it struck him that he was lying to himself. He
had
chosen this path. True, he'd made his decision at the point of death with no clear knowledge of what his choice entailed, but all the same, the choice had been offered him and he had taken it.

“What a very puzzling creature you are.” The woman folded her arms around her knees and stared thoughtfully at him. “You talk quite like a fledgling at times, moody, naïve, shockingly uneducated. Is it possible you actually
mean
what you say? Have you really received no instructions
at all
, for example, in how to eat without killing?”

Quintano growled angrily. He was half-tempted to snatch the woman from her rocky perch and set his fangs to her flesh. “To eat without killing? Oh! Yes, of course. Why would I not want
that
? How far more pleasant it must be to listen to one's food scream in pain while one steals the life from them. Or perhaps you are one of those who prefer to rip out your victims' throats aforetime, so they are silent as they slowly succumb to agony and blood-loss? I
should
have left you to your fate. I'm heartily sorry now that I had any hand in saving you.”

The woman's back stiffened. The wary look, which had left her eyes in the last few minutes, was back with a vengeance. “Is it possible you really do not know this? We
need not kill
in order to feed. In most cases we need not even cause pain.”

Quintano sprang to his feet. “You lie!”

The woman rose also, more slowly. “Why would I? What purpose would it serve me to make up such a story, if it wasn't true?”

“How should I know what demons drive you? Perhaps you wish to torment me with false hopes. Perhaps you seek merely to ease your own conscience.”

She shook her head. “My conscience is quite clear; although, again, I thank you for your concern. You, on the other hand, appeared so troubled by the need to kill, that I thought it might ease your mind to learn otherwise. I thought to repay you, in some small way, for your kindness to me. I can see now I was mistaken. I think it best to end this discussion—and our acquaintanceship—immediately.”

She moved swiftly, reaching for the branch she'd so recently tossed back into the flames, but Quintano was swifter. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her roughly. “Tell me the truth.”

Her fangs descended. She glared at him through eyes that had gone silver-grey. “I
have
told it to you.”

“Then show me. Now. Prove to me it can be done.”

“Unhand me,” she growled. “I take orders from no man save one, and you are not
he
. I will show you nothing.”

“You will!”

“Never.”

“You will show me what I wish to see,” Quintano insisted. “You'll prove your story true, or I shall kill you.”

“Kill me?” A wild, bitter laugh issued from her throat. “Ah, your true colors, at last. What of your word to me? What of your promise not to take from me unwillingly?”

Quintano howled, unable to fashion a single word in response. He'd known it was a mistake to save her.

Georgia nodded. “I see. Well, my lord, if that's to be the way of it, so be it. You are certainly free to
try
and kill me. Others have. Why, you would not even be the first to attempt such a thing
tonight
. But have a care. Are you so certain you'll succeed where so many others before you have failed? I am not without resources, and I will
not
make your task easy for you.”

Quintano did not doubt it. Not for an instant. “Show me,” he repeated angrily.

“No.”

He
should
kill her—and quickly, before she had the chance to utter even one more lie. But what if it
wasn't
a lie? That was the doubt that stilled his hand—even more than the promise he'd given. What if there was even the smallest chance she was telling the truth, the tiniest hope that he need not live like this any longer? Shuddering with the effort, Quintano retracted his fangs and forced the beast that raged within him back into hiding. He gentled his hold on the woman—not so much that she might wrench herself free, but enough to make it clear that his intention was to do her no harm. He gazed at her imploringly. “Georgia, please. I beg you. If this is true, you must show me. I
need
to know.”

Chapter Two

San Francisco, California

Present Day

The music was making Marc hungry. That was hardly surprising since it was exactly what it had been designed to do. Still, it worried him. He leaned against the bar and cast a concerned glance across Akeldama's crowded dance floor, trying to gauge how the formerly feral vampires he'd brought here tonight were faring. Just because he could withstand the pulsing temptation didn't mean they could do the same. Tonight's outing was an experiment. He wasn't yet confident enough in their training to allow them to come here on their own, and the music was a major contributor to his anxiety.

The layering of amplified human heartbeats beneath an otherwise unremarkable dance mix was something he'd expressly forbidden at his own club, and with good reason. Ferals didn't need the additional stimulation. What merely sharpened a normal vampire's appetite was often enough to send one of his people off on a killing rampage. At least, that's how it had been when he'd first found them. They'd made a lot of improvement since then. It might be time to revisit his earlier decision.

“Well, look who's finally poked his head out of the man-cave.”

Marc turned to stare at his sister in surprise. “Julie? Hey. What are you doing here?” He was a little chagrined at not having sensed her presence aforetime. He thought he'd honed his tracking skills to an impressive level. Either the music was more of a distraction than he'd realized, or he'd been fooling himself. Then again, he hadn't exactly been looking for her. The last he'd heard, Julie took every opportunity to avoid places like this. “It's good to see you.”

He examined his sister a little more closely. There was an uncharacteristic sadness in her eyes. It looked like the last few months had been hard on her as well. Or was his imagination working overtime?

“I guess I could ask why you're here too,” Julie replied, studying him just as closely. When her gaze touched on his eye patch she flinched and looked away. “I wasn't exactly joking about the man-cave thing. Word is you haven't been getting around that much.”

“I know. I have been sticking close to home a lot lately.”

Julie made a face. “Home? You mean that dodgy old warehouse?”

Marc shrugged. “I just came here tonight to see Drew.”

“Oh.” Julie's mouth drew tight. “You're here to see
Drew
. Sure, that makes sense. I mean, you guys are so close—all that history. I can see where you'd want to make a special point to see
him
. You must really miss him a lot, huh?”

Marc sighed. Even without the sarcasm, he'd have recognized that tone. He'd heard it often enough growing up. His sister was feeling left out once again. Experience told him he would not be winning any points by mentioning that he and Drew had seen each other frequently in the last few months. “C'mon, Jules. Don't be like that. You know I've missed you too.”

“Seriously, Marc? How would I know that?”

“Super-twin powers?” he joked feebly.

“You haven't been back to the house since Christmas,” Julie said, openly pouting now. “That was months ago! I get that you and Conrad had one of your usual blow-outs, but what's new about that?”

“It's nothing,” Marc insisted quickly. “Don't worry about it. We're fine.”

“Uh-huh. You know what's really funny? All that shit you just said—it's nothing, everything's fine, don't worry about it—that's the same crap Conrad and Damian keep dishing out too. So I guess you all must think I'm stupid or something.”

“Would you listen to yourself? Where's all this self-pity coming from? No one thinks you're stupid.”

“Well I don't know how else to explain it. You're all acting like I haven't known you my entire life, like I can't tell when one of you is lying to me—not to mention when
all
of you are. You up and disappear without a word. They're all worried and concerned about the friends you're keeping and this new House you've supposedly started. Not that they're willing to tell me what's so horribly wrong about it. And I'm supposed to believe it's all just business as usual? Give me some credit, Marc! I know there's gotta be more to it than just
nothing
. What happened?”

“You know, if you're really that concerned, you could've stopped by to see me too,” Marc pointed out, mostly to change the subject. “It's not like you didn't know where I was—since clearly you did.” The way she kept talking about the four of them, how well they knew each other, how
long
they'd known each other, made him nervous.

She was making them sound a little too much like a nuclear family—which they pretty much were. That was something no one else must ever suspect.

“You mean come by the warehouse?”

“Sure. It works both ways, you know.”

A faint shudder wracked Julie's frame. “No. I couldn't. I hate that place. I don't know how
you
stand it. Why do you stay there, Marc? Why can't you come back home?”

Marc cast another quick glance at his charges, to make sure they were still doing okay. “I told you; that
is
my home.” Even as he said it, he felt torn. Sure he missed his old family—especially his sister—but he knew in his heart that, at least for right now, his place was with his new family. He wished he could confide in Julie, explain things to her, tell her some of what he'd learned. They'd been each other's confidants for most their lives. He missed being able to bounce ideas around and talk things through with her.

Mostly, he wished he could tell her the truth about himself. He wasn't just fine, these days; he was stellar. He was feeling better and stronger, clearer and more confident than ever before. But if he told her that, he'd have to tell her why. He'd have to tell her everything and that would be bad for two reasons. Not only would it put her in even more danger, but if she hadn't experienced any changes in her own life, it might depress her even further.

“It's not so bad, you know,” Marc said.

“What isn't?”

“The warehouse. If you came by once in a while, maybe you'd see that. You didn't used to like
this
place either, right? Time was you'd use any excuse to keep from coming to the clubs. And look at you now, here on your own.”

If she could get used to the warehouse, if he could somehow convince her to move in there with him, that would be one less reason for him to worry, one less person for him to miss, one less loyalty to feel torn about. He could risk telling her everything then, secure in the knowledge that he could find a way to make her feel special just the way she was. Besides, strong as Conrad was, he was still hampered by the need to behave conventionally. Marc was under no such constraints. So if he and his ferals couldn't keep Julie safe, no one could.

His sister was staring at him as if he'd grown another head. “What makes you think I like it here now? Or that I'm alone? I'm only here because of Christian. He wanted to come and I promised I'd show him around.”

“Christian? Who's that?”

“Wow, you really have been out of the loop, haven't you? See? That's another reason you should stop by more often. You don't know about
anything
that's going on anymore. I could be seeing
ten
new guys and you wouldn't even know.”

“Jules. Enough already. Let it go.”

“Okay, fine. Have it your way. I won't say another word on the subject.”

“Yeah. I wish.” Marc grinned at his sister. “So…Christian?” he prompted when the silence dragged on.

Julie shrugged. “I don't know what you want me to tell you. He's new. You don't know him.”

“How new? Whose House? Where's he from?”

Julie rolled her eyes. “Okay, not
new
exactly. I think he's actually pretty old. He's one of ours, but he's only been
here
a little while. That's what I meant when I said he was new. He's visiting from England and we've been…well, we've kind've been…you know, hanging out. Unlike
some
people I could name, he actually
wants
to spend time with me.”

“I never noticed you had a problem finding people to spend time with,” Marc pointed out. “Either human or vampire.”

“Yeah, well, you'd be surprised 'cause it happens more than you think.” She glanced around impatiently. “Now where did he…? Oh, there he is.” Catching sight of someone across the room, she waved him over. “I guess it's a lucky break, you both being here tonight. He's been pestering me to introduce him to you for weeks.”

“Has he?” Marc watched the vampire approach. “Why's that?”

“How should I know? Just being friendly, I guess. I told you; he's new. He doesn't know any better. He must think you're interesting.”

“Ha-ha.” Ever since Marc had learned how “special” he and his sister were, he'd started second-guessing everyone's motivation for being his friend, for finding him “interesting”. “I hope that's all it is.”

Julie's eyes narrowed. “What's that supposed to mean?” Luckily, Marc was saved the trouble of answering by Christian's arrival.

“Hullo, hullo. You must be Marc,” he said as he leaned around Julie to extend his hand toward Marc. He smiled broadly. “Well. This
is
a pleasure. I've heard
so
much about you.”

“Have you?” Marc eyed Christian closely as they shook hands. He didn't miss the way Christian's other hand rested just a little too possessively at Julie's waist. “Who's been talking, I wonder?”

Julie sighed loudly. “See, myself, I would've gone with a simple ‘nice to meet you'. But that's just me.”

Marc shot his sister an unrepentant grin. “How am I supposed to know if it's nice yet? We just met.”

“Exactly right,” Christian agreed, obviously unruffled. “And as for who's been talking, well, everyone really. You're quite a popular fellow around these parts. I understand you've been making remarkable progress rehabilitating feral vampires. That's an achievement that's got everyone talking—and rightly so. I didn't realize such a thing was even possible.”

“That's been the general consensus up until now,” Marc admitted. “I suspect it's just never been tried.”

“Well, whatever it is, it sounds quite brilliant. I'd love to pop 'round some time to see your setup. I've been trying to talk your sister into paying you a visit, but she's not been too keen on the idea.”

“So I've heard.” Marc shot a curious look at his sister, who was rolling her eyes and looking seriously annoyed. No doubt she felt like they were ganging up on her. He'd been half-tempted to use Christian's interest as a way of teasing Julie into stopping by—until the stubborn jut of her chin had stopped him cold.

He knew his sister well enough to realize now was not the time for that. He'd have to proceed cautiously or risk putting her back up. Push Julie too hard and all you'd end up with was a fight. Unfortunately for Christian, it appeared that was a lesson he had yet to learn.

A small commotion on the other side of the room gave Marc the excuse he needed to make his escape. “Look, I gotta go deal with that,” he said, leaning in to quickly peck his sister on the cheek. “Take care of yourself, okay? I'll come by the house soon for a visit.”

“You'd better,” Julie replied, still pouting.

“I will,” Marc told her, turning serious once again. “I promise.”

Julie watched as her brother walked away—running off to deal with his precious ferals, no doubt. It was stupid to feel jealous and left out, but she was managing it nicely all the same. And wasn't that just like her brother? No one could coax Julie's inner child out to play quite like Marc. Even after all this time, he was still an expert at pushing buttons she'd forgotten she even had.

“I'm too old for this shit,” she muttered, feeling grumpy and out of sorts.

“What's that, love?” Christian asked, leaning in so he could hear her over the noise in the club.

The rapid patter of his heart—nervous, excited—was at odds with his careless tone. Julie squirmed restlessly. “Nothing,” she said as she pushed him away. “You ready to leave?”

Christian backed off at once. “Leave? Now?” He appeared less than pleased by the idea—surprise, surprise. “Wouldn't you rather wait for your brother to come back? I'd've thought you two would have more to talk about after all this time.”

Julie shrugged. “No, not really.” Come to think of it, Christian's interest in Marc
was
starting to seem a little peculiar. Something else she'd have to thank Marc for the next time they talked. Leave it to him to put the idea in her head that it was something out of the ordinary. Leave it to him to make her start wondering if Christian's interest in
her
wasn't unlikely as well. She didn't need this much drama in her life! “You can stay and talk to him yourself, if you want to,” she told Christian, not even caring that she sounded like a total brat. “But I've had enough of this place. So, with or without you, I'm going home.”

“Without” was sounding better all the time, come to think of it. Maybe she'd get changed and go out for a run before bed. A long run always helped to clear her head and, if she got tired enough, she'd fall right to sleep as soon as she lay down. Anything that kept her from staying awake half the day, staring at the walls while the sun trudged across the sky, was a good thing. “Seriously. Stay if you want. I don't mind.”

“No, I'll come with you,” Christian said.

He sounded a little truculent, but so what? The odds were good it had nothing to do with her. And, either way, it was not her job to try and figure Christian out. She'd go home. She'd go for a run. She'd stop thinking about all her troubles—for at least a few hours. She couldn't wait. “Okay, great. Let's go then.”