WICKED NIGHTS

"Castle of Dark Dreams" trilogy, Book 1

April 2005
Berkley

ISBN: 0425220265

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Welcome to the Castle of Dark Dreams. It’s the yummiest attraction in Live the Fantasy, an adult theme park where women who dare can take sexy role-playing to new erotic heights. Just by looking at the castle you know that only dangerously tempting men would play here. Three brothers—Eric, Brynn, and Conall McNair—run the castle. Okay, so they’re not quite human, but that’s a secret. This night Eric, the castle’s resident vampire, will prove that he’s everything bad should be.

Talk-show host Donna Nolan is on the trail of the weird and wacky in the Castle of Dark Dreams. But thoughts of a juicy interview to enthrall her listeners disappear when she meets Eric. With the coldest blue eyes and the hottest mouth she’s ever seen, he’s a primitive call to the wild in every woman.

Love between a talk-show host and a vampire shouldn’t be possible, but then, strange things happen in the Castle of Dark Dreams.

 



 
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PROLOGUE

“You bring the heat, O Evil One.” Sparkle Stardust leaned across the candy counter to get a better view of the man entering her store. “And that’s bad for business.”

She relished the shiver of excitement that always preceded the nightly visits of Eric McNair, because something about the centuries-old vampire spoke of dark power that rivaled her own. Secure in her own abilities, Sparkle welcomed a challenge. Winning was so much more satisfying when she pitted her skills against a worthy opponent. And Sparkle was all about winning.

“Deal with it.” He acknowledged his amusement with a slight lift of his lips.

Incredible lips. Sparkle was an expert on lips. “You’re a hard man.” She paused to consider the many nuances of hard. “Every day, as soon as the sun sets, I have to crank up the air at least ten degrees.” She shook her head in mock despair. “You steam up my windows so customers can’t see the merchandise, and you melt all my chocolate. You should be illegal.”

A lie. Yummy vampires should never be illegal. He was everything bad should be--dark, brooding, and cynical. And from their nightly bantering, she knew he didn’t think any woman would ever bring him to his knees. Hah, see me laugh. Idly Sparkle wondered if he’d run screaming into the night if he knew her store-owner persona was just a front for who she really was--the matchmaker from hell. Matchmaker from hell. Had a nice ring to it.

“I’m your best customer, so I guess I’m worth a few melted chocolate creams.” Eric shifted his attention to the tough job of choosing his nightly pound of candy.

“A whole pound. That’s a lot to eat in one night.” She’d had Deimos keeping tabs on him, so she knew her candy was pretty much the only thing sweet in Eric’s life. How sad was that? Well, she was about to do what she did best, mess with his emotions. Taking a deep breath, she savored the wicked joy she always felt as she anticipated bringing trouble and turmoil into the life of an unsuspecting victim. The best part? He couldn’t stop her. No one ever had.

“Brynn and Conall hit me up for half of it.” He bent over the glass case and bit his lip in concentration while he studied the possibilities.

Studying possibilities? Sparkle Stardust was doing the same thing. She’d met seriously hot men before, but Eric blew the top off the heat index. He should have too tempting to touch tattooed across his broad chest. With beauty that could suck a woman in with her eyes wide open, along with the coldest blue gaze and the sexiest mouth she’d ever seen, Eric was a primitive call to the wild in every woman. Sparkle heard it loud and clear. Hooked up with the right woman, he could make Texas the heat lightning center of the universe.

And Sparkle knew exactly what kind of woman was “right” for Eric. No kittens need apply. Eric needed a full-grown tigress to keep him happy.

Sparkle leaned a little closer. Oh, yessss. She could feel the dark and dangerous pull of all that powerful sensuality. “Tonight is steamy, so I’d recommend--”

Eric glanced up at her through a thick fringe of dark lashes and actually smiled. Uh-oh. Sparkle glanced down to make sure all her precious little mounds of chocolate hadn’t melted into one big puddle. She sighed her relief.

“No, I don’t want any chocolate-covered cherries. We go through this every night.” He splayed his fingers on top of the glass case as he narrowed down his choices.

Great hands. Wide palms to hold and mold a woman’s body, along with strong fingers to touch all those secret sensitive spots. Sparkle was a connoisseur of sexy hands.

“You’re assuming. Never assume anything about me, because I’m the queen of unpredictable.” She knew he was smart enough to take her seriously. “I’m pushing mints tonight, but what’s with this thing you have against chocolate-covered cherries? They’re so...symbolic.”

“Symbolic of sex. A little fixated on everything erotic, aren’t you?” He moved to the end of the counter to take a look at her selection of filled-center chocolates.

“Forget the milk chocolate, and don’t even think about white chocolate. You’re a dark chocolate kind of man.” He had to know how sexually delish he was. Vampires were carnal creatures by nature, but like any sensual being, he needed direction. And that’s where she entered the sexual game. She’d manipulate all that hard-muscled raw sensual attraction for her own purposes. Sparkle loved any game that had sex in the title.

She lifted her hair from her neck, then smoothed her hands down the length of her short black dress. Not a great color for a warm spring in Galveston, but a true expression of her inner being. She loved black. “You’ve got great hair. All long and black. Makes a woman want to finger-comb it and--”

“You didn’t answer my question.” He walked back to stand in front of her. “And I’ll take a pound of fudge.” Again the slight lift of his lips. “Vanilla.”

Sparkle made a small moue of disappointment as she put his fudge in a box. “You want to know about me and sex?” She took his money, gave him his change, then met his gaze. “I think it’s about time we leveled with each other. Everyone else looks at you and sees Eric the Evil who plays the bad guy in a reality theme park attraction called the Castle of Dark Dreams. Not me. I see a powerful creature of the night.”

Sparkle knew her smile was sly triumph. “From the stray thoughts you’ve neglected to hide, I’ve also discovered that you and your two brothers aren’t really brothers at all. Oh, and your last name isn’t McNair. It’s Mackenzie. Don’t worry, though. I won’t tell anyone. I feel a special bond with vampires.”

She reached out to touch his lips with the tip of her finger. “I sense your lips guard secrets--dark, fascinating, and very scary secrets. You’ve shielded most of your thoughts from me, but that makes me even more curious.” Sparkle shrugged. “A feline characteristic. I can’t stand not knowing everything.”

He clasped her finger, holding it captive as he narrowed his gaze in warning. Fear, an emotion she’d rarely felt, slid down her spine, reminding Sparkle that when she chose to play games with powerful beings, she’d better play carefully. But even in anger, his sexual pull was so compelling that she never for a moment doubted he was worth the risk.

“Remember what curiosity did to the cat, Sparkle.” His soft murmur was a chilling promise that bad things happened to those stupid enough to mess with any vampire from the Mackenzie clan. “Brynn, Conall, and I are the McNair brothers to the rest of the world. Don’t ever call me Mackenzie again.” The air around him vibrated with menace and unspoken threats. Still holding her gaze, he released her finger. “Now let’s hear about you. I felt your power the first time I walked into the store. You’re not human, so what are you?”

“I’m a cosmic troublemaker, and I specialize in sex. The universe is my sensual playground.” Sparkle widened her eyes and offered him a smile filled with fake sincerity. “I like to hook up people who’re perfect for each other and then help them sail happily into their sexual sunset.” Gag. The truth? She liked to hook up people who hated each other so she could tow them into rough water. Then she’d watch them flail away at the waves of sensual attraction, suspicion, and mutual dislike washing over them. A fun time would be had by all.

“Right.” His expression said he knew a liar when he heard one.

Goody. Cynical men were sexy and challenging. A fascinating combination. Leaning across the counter, she propped herself up on her elbows. “Think of me as your very own fairy godmother.” She frowned. “No. Forget the fairy godmother thing. Sounds sort of yesterday. Hmm. Got it. Think of me as your sexual happiness facilitator.”

He didn’t smile. “Stay out of my life.”

Not a chance, my beautiful one. “Too bad. You don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve spent over a thousand years preaching the power of S--sex and the senses. Now that I own a store where customers can double-dip all things wickedly delicious, I’ll add another super S word. Sex and sugar, the ultimate indulgence.” She shrugged. “I won’t need you, because I’ll have so many others who need my...help.”

He studied her. “You named the store Sweet Indulgence, but there’s nothing sweet about you, is there?” His gaze turned suspicious. “I hope you’re not thinking of sticking your nose inside the castle.”

“The Castle of Dark Dreams interests me. The name evokes such breathtaking sensual images.” Sparkle smiled what she knew was a provocative smile. “It’s temptingly sinister, and just by looking at it I knew that only seriously dangerous men would play there. I love alpha males. All that raging testosterone... Mmm. Anyway, I have plans for your castle.”

He’d reached the glowering stage. “Don’t mess with Brynn, Conall, or me, Sparkle. Just leave us alone.” He grabbed his box of candy and strode toward the door.

Sparkle sighed with the pure pleasure of the moment. “I get off on a glorious display of male temper. It makes me feel all tingly and sexy.”

“Everything makes you feel sexy.” With that parting shot, Eric slammed from the store.

She allowed herself a smile of anticipation. She’d find the perfect woman and then... Prepare to strip down to bare skin, my hot and gorgeous vampire, because Sparkle Stardust is about to turn up the heat in the Castle of Dark Dreams.

 

CHAPTER ONE

“No.” Donna Nolan’s word-flavor of the day. She’d been saying it ever since she landed at Bush International. She’d said it all the way to the Houston radio station, and the word hadn’t lost its popularity during the drive to Galveston.

“So are you still getting calls from listeners about their fun-filled nights with lust-crazed creatures of the night?” Franco, her technical engineer from the Houston affiliate, took his eyes from the road long enough to grin at her.

“No.” At least not since Donna’s station decided to screen her calls. She had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, she wanted to be in control of all aspects of her show, but she sure didn’t want to go through another attack of the pod women.

“Hey, let’s hear the story. I don’t stay up late enough to catch your program.” Ken, her show producer for the week, sat behind her in the station’s van. He didn’t try to hide his amusement.

Donna didn’t believe him. He knew the story, but he’d probably get some kind of twisted kick from listening to her tell it. She wouldn’t bite.

“No.” She stared out the van’s window as Franco drove across the causeway linking Galveston Island with the mainland.

“What about the Castle of Dark Dreams? Think you’ll find any lust-crazed creatures there?” Franco again.

“No.” Donna gritted her teeth. They were like a gnat tag team. She’d swat one question away only to find another one whizzing at her.

“You’re a real disappointment, sweetheart.” Ken tried for sincere, but his chuckle ruined the affect. “You’re New York smart and host a program heard by millions. I expected tough gritty insights into the world of lust-crazed things that go chomp in the night.”

They drove in silence for a few minutes. Donna closed her eyes then sighed. Okay, she was tired from the trip and worried about her family, but that didn’t mean she had to take it out on Franco and Ken. She’d only be working with them for a week. If she didn’t chuck her bad attitude soon, she’d leave Texas with a bitch-from-hell reputation.

She waited until Franco finished pointing out the seawall and beyond it the Gulf of Mexico. “Look, here’s the story. I’m only telling it once so you’d better listen up.” She continued to stare out the window. “Two weeks ago I got a call from a woman, Linda, who claimed that every night for the past month a pod of nonhuman whatevers had whisked her from her bedroom. Each night a different one seduced her, and she’d have crazy sex with him until dawn. One night it might be a vampire and the next a werewolf. The pod was an equal opportunity group.”

“Pod? Like in killer whales?” Franco drove along Seawall Boulevard with its panoramic view of the Gulf.

“Right. Anyway, some women have no stamina. All that sensual gratification exhausted her, and by the time she got home each morning she was zonked.”

Franco looked as though he was giving her story some deep thought. “That’s rough. How do you handle someone who calls in with that kind of yarn?”

Good question. Donna could’ve cut the woman off the air, but she always respected callers no matter how out there they sounded. “When I first started Donna till Dawn, I told my listeners I’d always be open to what they had to say. All of them. But this?” She flung her hands into the air. “I mean, hello? Why me? Ms. Night-creature magnet should’ve been out having crazy sex with fang-guy number thirty-two instead of calling my program. I passed on my usual in-depth questions, but the damage was already done.”

“Uh, did she mention any lust-crazed female creatures?” Ken sounded serious.

Sheesh. “No.”

Undeterred, Ken forged on. “You decided to broadcast your program from the Castle of Dark Dreams for a week because of this woman? Why?”

Night was falling, and Donna paused for a moment to stare at the brilliantly lit entrance to Live the Fantasy Theme Park that dominated the skyline. Like it or not--and she was leaning toward not--she’d be stuck at The Castle of Dark Dreams, one of the park’s major attractions, until Friday.

“After that first call, the next few nights were disasters. Each night I fielded dozens of calls about the pod. According to callers, the pod was on a mission to drain the sexual energy from every woman in Texas.” She smiled, but it felt strained.

“Think about it. Millions of women sleeping in while hubby and the kids make their own breakfasts and find their own socks. It boggles the mind. And according to all the women who called, the evil pod’s headquarters is right here in Galveston, in the Castle of Dark Dreams.” Donna had never had proof of the power of mass suggestion. She sure had it now.

“So you caved.” Ken sounded a little too satisfied with the thought of her caving.

She shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. Every morning I went home with a pounding headache, and that last night I knew I couldn’t stand another round of pod stories. To stop the calls, I promised my listeners I’d take the show on the road to the Castle of Dark Dreams and do some serious investigating. In return, no one could call to discuss the pod until I was actually here broadcasting.”

Ken nodded, finally satisfied. “Makes sense to me.”

It was definitely not the whole story. Even without the calls from the pod women, she would’ve had to leave New York to visit some affiliates. But she would’ve done a better job of planning the trip.

Station heads had been bugging her to take Donna till Dawn on the road. Marketing department polls showed a recent ratings slip for her show. Key in Jaws music. The heads were right. Ratings were serious business. She needed to meet and greet people to pull in new listeners. But not this week. Donna damned the headache that had scrambled her brain cells.

“That’s the story, guys. And just so we understand each other, I’ll personally kick butt if either one of you mentions lust-crazed and creatures in the same sentence while I’m within hearing distance.” Donna tried on a perky smile to assure them she was willing to get along. Perpetual gloom wouldn’t win new friends.

“Got it, boss lady.” Ken didn’t sound intimidated.

Franco made a right turn onto the wide street leading to the park’s entrance. Small shops marched on either side of the road, and even at night heavy traffic lined up at the entrance. A high wall with multicolored lights hid most of what was inside, but the arched entrance was a three-dimensional collage of traditional fantasies. She allowed herself a moment of nostalgia. A pirate ship. When she was eight years old, she’d wanted to be a pirate captain, which completely mystified her nine-year-old sister who wanted to be a microbiologist and her ten-year-old brother who’d decided on a career as a corporate lawyer.

As Franco eased into the line of vehicles entering the park, Donna spotted a candy store amid all the other shops vying for business from people entering or leaving. Sugar. It always improved her mood, and her mood needed a hell of a lot of improving if she was going to broadcast from here for five nights.

Park attractions didn’t all open and close at the same time, making Live the Fantasy a round-the-clock deal. Lucky her that the Castle of Dark Dreams ran their fantasies from dusk till near dawn so she could broadcast live during her usual hours of midnight until four in the morning.

“Stop. Let me out here. I’ll get a bag of candy then meet you inside at the castle.” Castle of Dark Dreams. Not a really creative name, but then she didn’t expect anything too challenging in the scary department, in spite of what listeners reported. It took a lot to scare her. Like falling ratings. Next to her family, her show was the most important thing in Donna’s life.

She climbed from the van and walked around the front to the driver’s side. Franco lowered his window and grinned at her. “You know, this might not be too bad.” He gestured at the surrounding area. “Galveston has some perks. Sun, sand, the Gulf, and a chance to live out a few cool fantasies.” His grin turned sly as he started to raise his window. “Maybe even a few sexy ones, like meeting a lust-crazed female creature of the night.” He raised his window the rest of the way before she could make good on her butt-kicking threat.

Donna did some mental teeth-baring. No use yelling at him, because he’d already driven away. Besides, she needed to conserve her energy in the South Texas heat and humidity. She supposed it was probably pretty comfortable by Texas standards, but June in Galveston wasn’t like June in New York City. She’d feel a lot better once she had a blast of sugar to pep her up. Fine, so the candy wasn’t to pep her up. It was a comfort food to assure her that somehow she was still in control of her universe.

She stepped into the Sweet Indulgence candy store and felt the first tingle of anticipation she’d experienced in over a week. If she had to go to battle in the Castle of Dark Dreams, she’d go armed with sugar in her bloodstream. She breathed deeply. Ah, the scent of bliss—sweet, smooth, rich. Exactly the traits she’d like to find in a man. Sure, the few men she’d met who’d fit that description had bored her silly, but she’d find the right one eventually.

“Donna Nolan? This is so amazing. You’re actually standing in my store.” The woman behind the candy counter bounced up and down with enthusiasm. For her? Donna glanced over her shoulder. Must be. No one else was in the place.

“Uh, yeah.” Donna smiled. People didn’t usually recognize radio personalities. This was a real feel-good moment, and boy did she need one. Come to think of it, how had the woman known her?

“I saw your photo on the program’s Web site, and I listen to you every night so I knew you were broadcasting from the Castle of Dark Dreams all week. I’m a huge fan, and I’ve wanted to meet you forever.” The woman stopped bouncing long enough to push her long red hair from her face and smooth her fingers over her black sleeveless top that ended somewhere north of her navel.

“Glad you like the show. I bet with a little sniffing around I’ll uncover some paranormal phenomena in the castle.” Or not. Candy. She needed lots of candy. “I’d like a--”

“You don’t want to be here, and you don’t think you’ll find squat in the castle. All you want to do is get this week over with so you can fly back to New York.” The woman offered her a knowing smile as she watched Donna out of amber eyes that almost compelled Donna to lay out all her problems, eyes that promised she’d understand.

Startled, Donna stared at the woman. “I’m that obvious, huh?” Donna leaned her elbows on the glass counter and sighed her complete unhappiness over the coming week.

The woman’s laughter was a light tinkle of amusement, and for the first time Donna really looked at her. Flame-colored hair, perfect features, exotic eyes, and a lithe body. She made Donna feel like the before shot on an extreme makeover show. What was the woman doing working in a candy store?

“Don’t feel bad. I have a...talent for reading what people mean no matter what they’re saying.” She leaned a little closer to Donna, and her smile widened. “And I work in this store because I own it. I like interacting with people and supplying something that makes them feel good.”

For just a moment, Donna had the crazy idea the woman wasn’t talking about candy. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.” Donna smiled even as she wondered about the woman’s ability to answer unspoken questions. Her listeners would call it telepathy, but Donna called it coincidence.

“I’m Sparkle Stardust.” She met Donna’s gaze with unblinking intensity. “Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you? It helps to talk things out.” She reached into her display case and pulled out a bonbon. “Have one on the house. Notice how sweet, smooth, and rich it is.”

Donna nibbled on the candy. Mmm. Good. Satisfying, but not a wow.

Tell everything? How could she share her problems with someone she’d just met? But against all reason, Donna felt an overwhelming compulsion to blab. She hoped it wasn’t the free bonbon talking.

 

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