Roman Draganesti knew someone had quietly entered his home office. Either a foe or close friend. A friend, he decided. A foe could never make it past the guards at each entrance of his Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse. Or past the guards stationed on each of the five floors.
With his excellent night vision, Roman suspected he could see much better than his uninvited guest. His suspicions were confirmed when the dark silhouette stumbled into a Louis XVI bombe chest and cursed softly.
Gregori Holstein. A friend, but an annoying one. The vice president of marketing for Romatech Industries tackled every problem with tireless enthusiasm. It was enough to make Roman feel old. Really old. "What do you want, Gregori?"
His guest whipped around and squinted in Roman's direction. "Why are you sitting here, all alone in the dark?"
"Hmm. Tough question. I suppose I wanted to be alone. And in the dark. You should try it more often. Your night vision is not what it should be."
"Why bother to practice my night vision when the city's lit up all night?" Gregori groped along the wall till he located the switch. The lights came on with a muted golden glow. "There, that's better."
Roman leaned back into the cool leather of his wingback chair and took a sip from his wineglass. The liquid burned his throat. God-awful stuff. "Is there a purpose for your visit?"
"Of course. You left work too early, and we had something important to show you. You're going to love it."
Roman set his glass on the mahogany desk in front of him. "I have learned that we have plenty of time."
Gregori snorted. "Try to work up some excitement here. We had an amazing development at the lab." He noted Roman's half-empty glass. "I feel like celebrating. What are you drinking?"
"You won't like it."
Gregori strode toward the wet bar. "Why? Are your tastes too refined for me?" He grasped the decanter and sloshed some red liquid into a wineglass. "Color looks good."
"Take my advice and get a new bottle from the fridge."
"Ha! If you can drink it, so can I." Gregori tossed back a good portion before slamming the glass down with a victorious sneer aimed at Roman. Then his eyes widened. His normally pale face turned a purplish red. A strangled sound vibrated deep in his throat, and then the sputtering began. Coughing, followed by choked curses, followed by more coughing. Finally he pressed his palms against the bar and leaned forward to gasp for air.
God-awful stuff, indeed, Roman thought. "Have you recovered?"
Gregori took a deep, shuddering breath. "What was in there?"
"Ten percent garlic juice."
"What the hell?" Gregori jerked to an upright position. "Have you gone mad? Are you trying to poison yourself?"
"I thought I'd see if the old legends were true." Roman's mouth curled into a slight smile. "Obviously, some of us are more susceptible than others."
"Obviously, some of us like to live too damned dangerously!"
Roman's attempt at a smile faded into oblivion. "Your observation would have more merit if we weren't already dead."
Gregori stalked toward him. "You're not going to start that 'woe is me, I'm a cursed demon from hell' crap again, are you?"
"Face the facts, Gregori. We have survived for centuries by taking life. We are an abomination before God."
"You're not drinking this." Gregori wrenched the glass from Roman's hand and set it down out of his reach. "Listen to me. No vampire has ever done more than you to protect the living and tame the cravings within us."
"And now we're the most well-behaved pack of demonic creatures on Earth. Bravo. Call the pope. I'm ready for sainthood."
Gregori's impatient look melted into curious speculation. "Is it true what they say, then? You were once a monk?"
"I prefer not to live in the past."
"I'm not so sure about that."
Roman clenched his hands into fists. His past was a subject he would discuss with no one. "I believe you mentioned some sort of development at the lab?"
"Oh, right. Sheesh, I left Laszlo waiting in the hall. I wanted to set the scene, so to speak."
Roman took a deep breath and slowly relaxed his hands. "Then I suggest you begin. There are only so many hours in a night."
"Right. And I'm going out clubbing later. Simone just flew in from Paris, and boy - "
" - are her wings tired. That was old a century ago." Roman's hands fisted once again. "Stay on the subject, Gregori, or I will be forced to send you to your coffin for a timeout."
Gregori gave him an exasperated look. "I only mentioned it in case you wanted to join us. It's a hell of a lot more fun than sitting here alone, drinking poison." He adjusted his silk black tie. "You know, Simone has always been hot for you. In fact, any of the ladies downstairs would love to cheer you up."
"I don't find them particularly cheerful. The last time I looked, they were all dead."
"Well, if you're going to be picky about it, maybe you should try a live one."
"No." Roman jumped to his feet, grasped his wineglass, and zoomed with vampire speed to the wet bar in one second. "Not a mortal. Never again."
"Whoa. That hit a nerve."
"End of discussion." Roman poured the blood and garlic concoction down the drain, then emptied the remainder of the poisonous brew from the decanter. He'd learned his lesson long ago. A relationship with a mortal could only lead to heartbreak. Literally. And he'd rather not experience a stake through the heart. What a great choice he had for companionship - a dead female Vamp or a live woman who would want him dead. And it would never change. This heartless existence would stretch on and on for centuries. No wonder he was depressed.
As a scientist, he could usually find something intriguing to occupy his mind. But sometimes, like tonight, it wasn't enough. So what if he was close to a breakthrough on a formula that would enable a vampire to stay awake during the day? What would he do with those extra hours? More work? He had centuries ahead of him for work.
The truth had hit him tonight. If he stayed awake during the day, there would be no one to even talk to. He'd only be adding more hours of loneliness to his so-called life. And that was when he'd given up and come home. To be alone in the dark, listening to the monotonous beat of his cold, lonesome heart. Relief would come at dawn when the rising sun would stop his heart, and once again he would be dead during the day. Unfortunately, he was beginning to feel dead all the time.
"Are you all right, Roman?" Gregori watched him warily. "I've heard that sometimes the really old ones like you get kinda down in the dumps."
"Thanks for reminding me. And since I'm not getting any younger, perhaps you could bring Laszlo in from the hall?"
"Right. Sorry." Gregori tugged on the cuffs of his snowy white evening shirt. "Okay, I wanted to set the scene. Remember the mission statement for Romatech Industries? Make the world safe for vampires and mortals alike."
"I'm aware of it. I believe I wrote it."
"Yes, but the major threat to peace has always been the poor and the Malcontents."
"Yes, I know." Not all modern-day vampires were ridiculously rich like Roman, and even with his company making synthetic blood affordable and accessible, those who were financially challenged would always be tempted to feed off a mortal for free. Roman had tried to convince them that there was no such thing as a free lunch. The victimized mortals tended to take offense. Then they would hire a few Buffy wannabes, and those vicious little killers would destroy every vampire who crossed their path, even the peaceful, law-abiding Vamp who wouldn't bite a flea. The sad truth was that as long as any vampire persisted in attacking mortals, no vampire on Earth would be safe.
Roman ambled back toward his desk. "I believe I put you in charge of the poor problem."
"I'm working on it. I'll have the presentation ready in a few days. Meanwhile, Laszlo had this brilliant idea for handling the Malcontents."
Roman sat heavily in his chair. The Malcontents were the most dangerous group of vampires in existence. The secret society called themselves the True Ones and spurned the more evolved sensibilities of the modern-day Vamp. The Malcontents could afford to buy the richest blood manufactured by Romatech Industries. They could afford the most exotic, gourmet blood from Roman's popular line of Vampire Fusion Cuisine. They could even afford to drink from the finest crystal. They just didn't want to.
For them, the thrill of drinking blood was not the blood itself. These creatures lived for the bite. They believed nothing could replace the intense pleasure of sinking one's fangs into the warm, pliant skin of a mortal's neck.
In the past year, communication between the Malcontents and modern Vamps had degenerated until an undeclared state of war hovered over them. A war that could result in many deaths - both mortal and vampire.
"Have Laszlo come in."
Gregori zoomed to the door and opened it. "We're ready."
"About time." Laszlo sounded upset. "The guard out here was about to perform a cavity search on our guest of honor."
"Och, ye have a bonnie lass there," the guard murmured in his Scots accent.
"Leave her alone!" Laszlo marched into Roman's office with a female clutched in his arms as if the two of them were doing the tango. Not only was the female taller than the short vampire chemist, she was noticeably na**d.
Roman jumped to his feet. "You brought a mortal here?" A na**d mortal?
"Relax, Roman, she's not real." Gregori leaned toward Laszlo. "The boss is a little nervous about mortal females."
"I am not nervous, Gregori. Every nerve ending in me died over five hundred years ago." Roman could see only the back of the false female, but her long blond hair and rounded derriere certainly looked real.
Laszlo set the female in a wingback chair. Her legs stuck out straight, so he leaned over to bend them. With each adjustment, her knees made a small pop.
Gregori squatted beside her. "She's very lifelike, don't you think?"
"Very." Roman eyed the curly hair, trimmed in a narrow, stripper style, between the false female's legs. "Apparently she's a dyed blond."
"Look." With a grin, Gregori nudged her legs apart. "She comes fully equipped. Sweet, huh?"
Roman gulped. "Is this - " He cleared his throat and tried again. "Is this some sort of mortal sex toy?"
"Yes, sir, she is." Laszlo pried open her mouth. "Look. She even has a tongue. The texture is incredibly lifelike." He inserted a short, stubby finger. "And the vacuum causes a very realistic sucking sensation."
Roman glanced down at Gregori, who was kneeling between the female's legs, admiring the view, then at Laszlo, who was slipping his finger in and out of the doll's mouth. God's blood. If he were capable of getting a headache, he'd have a migraine by now. "Shall I leave you three alone?"
"No, sir." The short chemist struggled to free his finger from the doll's greedy mouth. "We just wanted to show you how real she is." His finger was released with a small pop, then the doll's mouth relaxed into a frozen smile that seemed to indicate she was enjoying herself.
"She's amazing." Gregori ran an approving hand down her leg. "Laszlo sent for her in the mail."
"It was your catalog." Laszlo looked embarrassed. "I don't usually have mortal sex. Too messy."
And too dangerous. Roman dragged his gaze away from the doll's beautifully shaped breasts. Maybe Gregori was right and he should enjoy himself with one of the lady Vamps. If mortals could pretend this doll was alive, maybe he could do the same with a vampire. But how could a dead woman warm his soul?
Gregori lifted one of the doll's feet for a closer look. "This little babe is tempting, though."
Roman sighed. This mortal sex toy was supposed to solve the Malcontent problem? They were wasting his time, not to mention making him feel horny and damned lonely at the same time. "All the Vamps I know prefer brain sex. I assume it's the same with the Malcontents."
"Not possible with this one, I'm afraid." Laszlo tapped the doll's head, producing a ripe-melon echo.
Roman noted the doll was still smiling, though her blue glass eyes gazed straight ahead with a vacant look. "So she has the same IQ as Simone."
"Hey." Gregori scowled as he cradled the doll's foot to his chest. "That's not nice."
"Neither is wasting my time." Roman glared at him. "How can this toy possibly solve the problem with the Malcontents?"
"But she's much more than a toy, sir." Laszlo fiddled with the buttons on his white lab coat. "She's been transformed."
"Into VANNA." Gregori gave the doll's little toe a playful tug. "Sweet little VANNA. Come to Papa."
Roman gritted his teeth, remembering first to make sure his fangs were retracted. Otherwise a Vamp could accidentally pierce his bottom lip. "Enlighten me, please, before I resort to violence."
Gregori laughed, apparently unconcerned by his boss's anger. "VANNA is a Vampire Artificial Nutritional Needs Appliance."
Laszlo twirled a loose button on his lab coat, his brow furrowed with worry. Obviously, he took the boss's temper much more seriously. "She's the perfect solution for the vampire who is still compelled to bite. And she'll be available in whichever race or gender you prefer."