New Year’s Eve, 1981
Try as he might, Conrad could not decide which aspect of tonight’s event was the most aggravating. The lights had been an early contender. They glared blindingly at him from nearly every wall, every surface, every fixture in his house, making him yearn for the past, for those halcyon centuries long since gone when night was a blessing that daily returned the world to what it should be. Dark.
True, in those days, most of humanity had still spent their evenings huddled around small fires, seeking warmth or protection from predators such as Conrad and his kind. Facing the threat of immolation at each and every meal had been no picnic, to be sure. Ah, but such glorious darkness had stretched between those isolated blazes, mile upon mile of it in some places. He missed those days.
Nowadays, he still managed to spend the larger portion of his time in an atmosphere that at least approximated something close to darkness, but not tonight. Tonight, Damian had decreed their guests must be accommodated and human tastes taken into consideration. Apparently, this meant the entire household had to be illuminated as brightly as though ’twere lit by the noonday sun itself…at least as Conrad recalled it, at a distance of several centuries. He had never wished more ardently for a new year to arrive with all possible haste, so that everyone here tonight might return to their homes forthwith and leave him in peace.
The noise was equally annoying. It maybe even had an edge on the lights, due to its sheer unpredictability. Shrill laughter, excited greetings, loud and increasingly drunken discussions—they eddied and flowed for no discernable reason and radiated from all directions. His hearing was such that he could discern the slightest whisper from across the room with ease. Unfortunately, no one present tonight was talking at anything close to a whisper.
Occasionally, all those voices did subside into something approaching a dull drone, but even then there was still the matter of Damian’s questionable musical choices to contend with. Assuming the noise issuing incessantly from the stereo could be termed music. Conrad was not at all certain about that. Nor could he imagine what had possessed him to allow the purchase of such a demonic contraption in the first place. Doubtless that was Damian’s fault as well. As was the almost overpowering mélange of fragrances that he knew would linger in the air for weeks afterwards, a combination of cigarettes and alcohol, a wide range of food products, both sweet and savory, and entirely too many competing perfumes.
Then again, on further consideration, perhaps the most annoying factor of all was the guests themselves. Ten years of relative isolation, while not a particularly lengthy stretch of time, had left Conrad ill-prepared for this sudden onslaught. It would not be so bad, perhaps, if he were able to take advantage of the throng and slake a little of the inevitable hunger their presence had stirred up, but Damian had made clear that eating was also a verboten activity.
It was critical that the twins get sufficient practice in controlling their impulses, Damian had argued. Even in the face of this much temptation, they must be able to hold their instincts in check, a suggestion with which Conrad had heartily agreed. They were also not yet skilled enough in stealth to attempt to feed unnoticed in a room full of people. Once again, Conrad could not fault Damian’s logic.
What Conrad did not understand was why Damian should insist that he and Conrad abide by the same restrictions they’d laid on the twins. Conrad certainly needed no such practice. He’d had centuries of it! Not only were his impulses well under control, he was also exceedingly well versed in stealth.
Do as I say, not as I do. Was that not also an excellent lesson for the twins to learn? What would be the harm in Conrad’s offering to give a select few of his guests a private tour of some of the house’s more secluded rooms?
At the moment, of course, it did not appear there were any secluded rooms to tour. The house had been thrown wide open and was currently packed to overflowing with more people than Conrad would have thought possible for it to contain. He must be the only person in the entire county to be hosting a party tonight, if the number of people intent on crowding into his home was any indication. Didn’t anyone stay at home on New Year’s Eve?
An Open House. The event certainly was living up to its name, but what would possess anyone of sound mind to wish to open his house to all and sundry? And where had Damian even heard of the term?
“Good evening, Papa.” The breezy, confident tone of Damian’s voice was marred by the thinnest thread of worry. Otherwise he hid his feelings well, far better than Conrad who only just barely managed to conceal a grimace. Papa. The name by which they’d agreed Damian should address Conrad in public. Never had it struck so sour a note. “Will you allow me to introduce my friend Paul to you?”
Would he allow it? An interesting question. And how clever of Damian to make it seem as though Conrad actually had any choice in the matter.
Still annoyed, Conrad allowed his gaze to lock with Damian’s and time lost its meaning. The look in Damian’s eyes was one Conrad had seen countless times before. There was something Damian wanted tonight, something he wanted very badly and only Conrad could give it to him. Oh, if only it were the same thing that Conrad wanted—just as badly—from Damian. It wasn’t however, and Conrad knew it.
“Certainly.” Smiling determinedly, Conrad turned his gaze to the other man, only to find his eyes had narrowed suspiciously. Conrad extended his hand all the same. “Paul, is it?” he murmured in dangerous tones, practically daring the boy not to take his hand. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The young man clenched his jaw and said nothing.
“Paul,” Damian prodded softly. The plaintive note in his voice nearly undid all of Conrad’s good intentions. Who was this boy that Damian—nearly as stiff-necked and proud as Conrad himself—should feel obliged to beg?
Paul shot Damian an angry look then reluctantly forced a smile. “Very pleased to meet you too,” he said his eyes still flashing a challenge as he shook Conrad’s hand, squeezing it with all-too-tight a grip.
Conrad sighed in annoyance. He sent an appealing glance in Damian’s direction, apologizing for what he was about to do, then he too tightened his grip, just enough to pull a gasp of pained surprise from Paul’s lips.
Damian cleared his throat and frowned pointedly at Conrad, but Conrad had already released Paul’s hand. “So, tell me, Paul,” he said, smiling at them both. “How did you and my son meet?”
“Son. Right.” Paul snorted quietly. “Well, actually, if you must know, we first met—”
“At a bar here in town,” Damian finished quickly. “Just a few months ago. You know how we’ve discussed bringing in another couple of tutors for the twins? After talking to Paul, I thought he might be just what we were looking for.”
“Did you?” Conrad hadn’t missed the angry look that passed between the two men. He wondered what he wasn’t being told this time. Before he had a chance to pursue it, or Damian to respond, a chant broke out in the room around them.
The countdown to the New Year had begun. Conrad’s lip curled into a rueful smile as he once again met Damian’s eyes. In seasons now long since passed, they might have heralded the New Year’s arrival with a kiss. Or even, perhaps, with a more intimate display of their mutual devotion.
Right now, their masquerade as father and son precluded any sort of intimacy in public and the sins that lay between them kept them apart the rest of the time, as well. But it didn’t always have to be that way, did it?
Someday, perhaps, there would come a time when all these petty constraints would be lifted and the two of them might ring in the New Year as they once had done. Someday. Perhaps.
“Happy New Year!”
The entire room erupted in a cheer and Paul, who was under no constraints whatsoever, turned suddenly toward Damian. He clasped Damian’s head between his hands and kissed him—hard and fast and far too intimately for two men who were mere acquaintances. If Conrad had still retained any doubts, that kiss would have resolved them. The two were lovers, but he already knew that. What he didn’t know, and what he needed to know, badly, was how deeply entrenched Damian’s heart had become.
Damian grasped Paul by the shoulders and pushed him away, breaking the kiss. His face was white with shock, his eyes wide with fear, but for once, Paul seemed not to notice Damian’s distress. Instead, he turned to Conrad with an insufferably smug smile on his face. “And a very Happy New Year to you too.”
Conrad could feel his temper boiling rapidly away. There were only two things keeping him from exploding in rage, the look in Damian’s eyes and what was left of his common sense. He could certainly kill Paul. In fact, at the moment, he’d have liked nothing more. But to do so now, to reveal his true nature here, in this room full of people, would mean a death sentence for the twins and himself and for Damian as well. No amount of insolence was worth that.
With his self-control stretched taut, Conrad once again appealed wordlessly to Damian. The message in his gaze was clear, or so Conrad hoped. Get him away from me. Now. Or else.
“Come, Paul.” Damian’s hand closed on the other man’s arm. “Let’s see who else we might introduce you to.”
Conrad didn’t bother watching them go. They couldn’t leave his sight quickly enough. He rolled his head from side to side, hoping to ease the tension in his neck. His jaw ached from the strain of keeping his fangs retracted. The bitter tang of venom flooding his mouth did nothing to sweeten his temper. Patience, he counseled himself. The boy was just a momentary annoyance. Damian was fickle and sure to tire of him soon. Even if he didn’t, Paul was what—maybe twenty or thirty years old? Whatever. He’d likely be dead within the next half-century—probably sooner, if this reckless behavior was his norm. Conrad could afford to wait.
* * * *
Twins Julie and Marc Fischer have always been taught one fact: You can’t choose your family. After six months of living in San Francisco, the challenges each face are an intricate web of complications neither was prepared for.
Marc is torn between staying with Conrad and Damian or embracing his destiny — and the feral vampires that come with it. Julie is torn between the man she loves, and the life she is supposed to live.