Diego Castilla, former conquistador, once a lover of gold, was a nobleman born into eternal thirst by a sorcerer taken by madness. Tonight, on this sandy white beach on Long Island, he stepped into the ocean that soothed his spirit, yet threatened him. If he stayed too long, if he forgot to limit his exposure, fish would sense his flesh was different and be drawn to it.
Up to his shoulders in the cool salt water, he tracked a velvety shadow running on the pier. A woman raced to the end and dove into the black water, reckless and perhaps eager for death.
He was familiar with loss of life.
With ease he crossed the hundred yards of choppy crests to find her with her arm wrapped around a dog. She struggled to pull him into shore, the tide making her fight for every foot.
He slipped his hand under the beast and across her chest. In a fraction of the time the feat would have taken her, he cut through the breakers to the starlit shore.
As soon as her feet touched bottom, she slipped out of his grasp which meant he allowed her to free herself. With the waves circling her calves, she held her place next to him standing erect with her arms folded across her chest. The dog took off for the dunes. “We were fine.” Her voice held conviction and a smattering of intolerance. She backed away, but continued to hold him in her gaze. “Really, I had things under control.”
Ah. He was dealing with a modern woman. Then, just as surprising, she extended her hand. He shook it—a brief touch—yet he reveled in its warmth sensing something about her that startled him. She had the directness of her late aunt. He had spoken several times with Mrs. Louise Thomas regarding Pre-Colombian pieces he loaned to the Town Museum. But right now, he concentrated on her niece.
“I’m Mercedes Thomas. I grew up on these beaches. I learned to swim here.”
Although he appreciated the background information, he sensed she had more to say and it would not be good. She pointed to a ghostly white sail on the horizon. “They either threw that poor little thing overboard or cared so little about it that a wave swept it away and they didn’t even notice.”
Nights making love on her bed leaped into his mind. With a graceful swipe of her hands, wisps of dark hair disappeared from her oval face. Eyes, whose color he could not read scanned his features waiting for his response.
“Forgive me. At first I thought you were trying to kill yourself. Then, when I saw the dog in your arms, you seemed to be in danger of foundering.” He sensed these comments might offend, but they were the truth. She surprised him.
Her laughter filled the space between them. Not since he and his brother joked and chewed moldy bread on an ocean-going caravel had he heard such a natural sound. Her flimsy shirt revealed an undergarment, but of such meager material that her bosom caught his attention. Bosom. An old-fashioned word whose vowels lent themselves to a pleasurable vision. Her long legs proved equally delightful to his weary eyes.
Mercedes of the strong limbs and fondness for dogs tired of waiting for him to add to the conversation. She glanced over her shoulder as she stomped clear of the ocean and him. Her hips undulated like an island girl’s when draped in a sarong. Her voice burrowed into the enchanted moments he had been building. Now she spoke into the wind.
“I haven’t forgotten or forgiven you for touching my goods. And now you’re staring at my behind.”
“Come back. We can discuss it.” She marched away and he stood alone on an empty beach watching her retreating white shorts glisten with reflected light similar to the aura that emanated from the offending boat. She never even asked his name.
Letting the night air dry his body, he slowly walked to the stairs of his mansion sheltered by the dunes and closed the door. It took him a moment to realize he was smiling. This happiness felt so extraordinary that for a long time the joy had no place to settle.
The phone on the mahogany secretary flashed messages. “Luz? Come now.” His ama de llaves, chosen by him centuries ago, liked the twenty-first century best, but cyberspace was stealing his housekeeper’s brain.
“Yes, my Master?”
“Do not call me ‘Master’. How many times must I remind you?”
Her eyebrow boasted a metal addition. “Not another piercing?”
“The latest, coolest thing.”
“I disagree. I regret giving you so much freedom.”
“To do your bidding I must fit the times.”
Long ago, out of rage at being turned, he laid waste to many villages, but her people recognized he had begun to loathe himself and his brutality and they altered their fate and his. He took her as a companion and she had been challenging him ever since. Sometimes he reasoned with her. “You deal with members of the museum. Do you think the spikes of tinted hair and clumps of metal will charm them?”
Silence. Her habit consisted of not answering when wrong.
“Tell me about the computer.”
She pursed her mouth. “Someone’s trying to hack in. I can handle it.”
His gaze traveled to the rambling cottage beyond the dunes bordering his home. “What do you know of the woman?”
“She eats organic fruits and draws stares from many hungry men when their wives are smelling melons. And our neighbor sometimes jogs along the shore at ungodly hours.”
“Really? And she shops in town?”
“She frequents the open market. She and I will be there tomorrow.”
He longed to see Mercedes again. “A change in schedule. You will handle the crates for the exhibit. They are the last shipment from Spain. I will do the shopping.”
“Master, that’s a bad idea. She’s just another mortal. Besides, I sense danger. I have never been wrong.”
“You have never been right.”
“Remember how they hounded us in 1759? I was right then, wasn’t I?”
“This woman is different. She is very much like her aunt who I admired. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? I might die?”
* * *
Mercedes stepped out of the blue-tiled shower. She hurried into a terrycloth bathrobe, toweled her freshly washed hair and dried it. She found a comfortable nightgown and slipped it over her head. Her stomach growled. Should she have snacks or real food? “Annie?” she yelled. “We got anything to eat?”
“Sure, but it’s in wrappers.”
Her sister’s voice carried up the polished birch staircase encouraged by the present lack of furniture. The basics were covered, but a lot of the chairs and tables, antiques all, had to be refurbished or refinished.
Great Aunt Louise the adventurer had refused to have them touched while she lived. Now that Mercedes and her sister were co-owners, they wanted to make the place sparkle like it did during the unrestrained eighties when their great uncle had made his millions.
Downstairs, while the micro hummed, Mercedes studied her sister. Being by the ocean had relaxed Annie, but had not eliminated the pallor. “What did the doctor say?”
“Not thrilled about my blood. He went off muttering about specialized procedures.”
“And the baby?”
“He’s fine. Just weeks to go.” Her gaze wandered across the newspaper stopping at a photograph.
“Hey. I’ve seen this guy.” She lifted the paper so Mercedes, standing to the side of the microwave, wouldn’t have to walk over.
“I just met him on the beach.” Mercedes gave details and watched a frown deepen around her sister’s mouth.
“He’s an international big shot and philanthropist.” Annie rattled the paper. “He’s into archaeology and old ruins. You have that in common. Want to know his name?”
“Don’t know how I can escape. You want to tell me.”
“How’d he make his money?”
“Inherited it. Cattle ranches in South America, emeralds in Colombia, and a castle in Spain.” Annie sighed. “Why couldn’t I meet a guy with mega bucks and a social conscience?”
“He’s not so great. The big rescue involved his hands on the girls.”
“So? He saved you.” Annie sniffed. “That macaroni smells good. Well, Diego’s got to be better than Dave. Mention baby, and whoosh, he’s gone.”
“Probably off the coast of Madagascar.”
“Very funny.” Annie tapped the newspaper photograph with her finger. “Castilla’s attractive.”
“Doesn’t even look like that. His features are more angular and his hair, well, I think it’s really dark. Not like that picture. It hangs almost to his shoulders. At least it did tonight. And he’s strong, really strong but not manufactured.”
“I’ve been here all week. Nothing interesting happened. You get here and wham, life begins.” Annie gathered silverware and placed it on the table. “On a night like this, with you meeting a tall, dark stranger, I miss old Dave.”
“So he could empty your bank account again?”
Annie ate a few mouthfuls of macaroni. “I’m going upstairs. Eating’s tired me out.” She waddled from the room but stopped on the stair landing. “Sometimes I forget the bad things.” Annie blew her a kiss. “I know you’re trying to help. Don’t overdo it.”
“Sorry, Sis, but you need protecting.”
“Next you’ll be foisting some of your self-defense trinkets on me.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Mercedes finished eating her half of the mac and cheese and headed onto the lower deck awash in mist. To her right a cluster of scrub oak hedged their cottage from the home of her neighbor. Further separating the houses lay dunes and a small nature preserve.
She turned to the ocean. The pounding of the waves had fallen to a murmur and the sea seemed to be waiting. But for what? She filled her lungs with the tangy air and felt the dampness slip over her. It had been a long time since she’d made love. She rubbed her hands over her shoulders and arms. The memory of her neighbor’s touch paid a return visit. “Diego Castilla.”
A gust of wind stole his name. Shocked that she’d said the words aloud, she backed away from the railing into the shadow of the eave. Something large flew over the water, something the scattering clouds had hidden a moment before. Intrigued, she wanted a better look.
Secure in the belief that no boats hugged the beach and that her neighbor couldn’t see, she stepped forward.
The large bird dove then seemed to disappear in the waves yet always reappeared. It wasn’t hunting. What was it doing? Having fun?
* * *
Driven by an adolescent feeling, Diego soared in front of Mercedes, showing off. Her pale nightgown caught the starlight. He wanted to take her into his arms. But not tonight. His mind slipped from him and he lost the thought. Blood. He wanted blood.
During the summer his journey did not vary. On the breeze he veered inland across the North Shore of Long Island to a corner of Connecticut and his farm. The fields occupied a large track of green and fed a small herd of Guernseys. They, in turn, were enough to feed him, but too few to offend the neighboring landowners with offensive odors. Always he traveled unnoticed, a dark moving spot with the night for background and often, thick clouds for friends.
The animals wore tags and were rotated so he did not feed continuously on the same nourishing creatures. He assumed his human form quickly because the fluttering of wings alarmed them. “Flor, come here.” Like other creatures he could command, she was obedient.
He sank his fangs through her rough hide into the vein that gave him life. Stop! His human brain tried to surface. He did not want to kill her. He fought the frenzy. He broke away, lunging for another. His blood was sweet. He drank until sated. “I release you, Federico.”
Tonight no moon bore witness. He lay down. Damp grass cooled his skin, heated now by the immediacy of warm blood. Naked and wanting a woman, his senses grew keener. The soil was rich, the pasture pungent. He stretched out and remembered nights when the icy orb gazed down at him.
What was the difference between them? A question he’d asked before. A familiar answer. Nothing. He and the moon were both dead.
When he reached his mansion, it was dark. He waited in the foyer off the pool but this was not his usual custom. Luz should have met him to hold his robe as he refreshed what she called “his outfit.” If he transformed while clothed, the unseen molecules seemed to wait until he reverted to human form. He had no one to ask about this strange thing, since the only other vampire perished at his hands. He found his silk robe in the closet by himself and secured it with a sash. “Luz, where are you?” Her key turned the front door lock. “How is it I am home before my housekeeper?”
“Diego. Don’t be mad. These are wild times. More bizarre than the Boozing Thirties.”
“Roaring Twenties. Where have you been?”
“I went with surfers I met at the end of the boardwalk.”
“And you took?”
“I got sick.”
“Foolish creature. Look at me.”
“I am afraid, Master.”
“If you leave the house unattended for a long period of time, it will place our centuries-old contract in jeopardy.”
“What if you ask me to go on an errand?”
“As you well know that is quite a different situation.”
“Answer the calls on the machine. Check the faxes. I want a report in an hour.”
She scampered into his library wearing shoes that made her teeter like the champagne-loving European women who so long ago came to him and never lived to tell.
Now that he had fed, his body was stronger, yet not as fortified as it could be. His powers had diminished for cows did not give sufficient nutriments. Their pleasant blood lacked the kick offered by human sustenance. With human blood, he became pure beast. However, these days, he was less noxious to himself. Would he be less odious to his lovely neighbor?
* * *
From the upper window he spied Mercedes sitting alone at the end of the pier, her hair swallowed by the night. Had she no sense? The beach was not without danger. Besides, it was damp. Wasn’t it true that women did not like to get their hair wet unless they were washing it?
He should leave her alone. Luz had sensed something he had not. But. . . he was weary of his life. Tired of sometimes reading minds, bending wills, and existing on the blood of others. When he transformed, often he was aware that he was both man and beast and the knowledge added to his pain.
At times, despite his attempt to shut down his supernormal abilities, he glimpsed a person’s soul. Not only was Mercedes named for mercy, but something in her eyes made him hope she would share it.
He would not sneak up on her or transport. That would be melodramatic. He fiddled with several of the tiny pier lanterns bolted to the pilings to alert her. The I-beams of the foundation had been sunk into bedrock, strong enough to resist the persistent force and drag of the Atlantic. Her arched back told him she sensed another presence, but his neighbor did not, would not turn.
“You’re after something. What do you want?” she asked as if questioning the wind.
The breeze nibbled her words, but he understood. He played righteous citizen. “This pier belongs to hard-working, tax-paying residents, correct?”
“I like to look at the ocean. I won’t bother you.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Why the harsh tone?”
She crossed her feet at the ankle. “Seriously, what do you want?”
The tail of her long shirt, he guessed it was muslin, touched her upper thighs. He approved of soft summer fabrics.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Diego rallied much as he did when he fought his way out of battles. “My brother and I sailed when we were young. We crossed the Atlantic and swam in the Pacific. When I sit out here, I think of him. If I bother you, I can leave, but I am curious what pull the ocean has on you.”
She faced him and an onshore gust ran through her hair. “I don’t have a tale to tell.”
He took the opportunity to move closer. “My curiosity has the better of me. I still want to know what brings you into the night.” Had she been waiting for him?
“I jogged. Now I’m thinking about private matters.” She raised a hand to quell her flying locks. “I don’t really like the ocean. I’ve had nightmares about being over the Mariana Trench. Serves me right for watching so many documentaries.”
“That is a lot of water.” She didn’t laugh but her shoulders softened. A good sign.
“Your picture’s in the newspaper, Mr. Castilla.”
“Against my will.” He wanted to tell her that tonight and other nights he left the house to walk the shores or to swim because he was chased by loneliness. But confessing such a thing would be what Luz called a downer. His neighbor angled her body in his direction.
“Why aren’t you happy?” she asked.
Diego quelled his surprise. “Too much work. Never should have brought the fax. Technology is everywhere.”
“A curse. Don’t you have a secretary?”
“I have Luz. She lives with me, but is not entirely efficient.”
“Is she your significant other?”
Luckily he was familiar with this term. “No. We are related by blood.”
“It’s hard to fire family.”
He sat next to Mercedes, not touching, but close enough to have her scent waft over him, a sweet fragrance deeper than that of the purple orchids that had clung to a vine in the rain forest. What a conversational plus not to have to ask Mercedes’ astrological sign! Those days had not passed quickly enough. “What do you do?” An overused question, but an acceptable ice-breaker.
“I’m starting as an intern at the Pascuas Museum in New York. My great aunt supported their efforts. It’s a trial run.” Her hand fluttered to her neck. “I’m career hopping. I used to work for a big corporation in the city.”
“You have completed your Masters?”
“I know the Pascuas. I’m on the board.”
In a swift movement he admired, she stood. He kept his gaze on her delightful face. “You are leaving?” Too distracted by her appeal, he stated the obvious and felt a fool.
“No longer enough starlight. How could I spot a rogue wave on a night like this?”
“If you like, I will walk you to your door. There might be creeps around.” She laughed the sound soft and throaty. Encouraged, he continued. “You are free to use my pool. The deepest end is only sixteen feet.”
“Thank you. That depth sounds bearable. It’s volumes of water and the image of me floating on top that gives me the shakes.”
When they reached her door Diego extended pool privileges to her sister.
“How do you know Annie?”
“I saw another woman staying at the house. There’s a family resemblance.”
“She’s shorter and really pregnant.”
“You could address your fear of the deep by coming for a ride on my yacht.”
He shrugged. “The offer stands. If you get up your nerve, let me know. The ocean can be merciless, but also fun.” In the cone of light issued from the lamp of her beachfront door, Diego studied her face. She showed no fear of him or rejection, merely registered a distraction brought on by thoughts of her sister. “I won’t take you over any abyssal canyons.”
She rested her hand on the doorknob. “Good. That would be very ungentlemanly.”
“Yes.” He walked away wishing she would follow. The moment Diego entered his house Luz’s voice poked holes in his fantasies.
“There’s a glitch. Remember that really old crate from the castle vault?”
“Well, somebody got their wires crossed and sent it. Do you want the shipment to go to the exhibit? I can get rid of the crawlies, repack it, make it presentable for the museum.”
“If the contents are artifacts, they must be included in the exhibit. They must join the other items being returned to Peru. I assume we have the appropriate papers?”
“We took care of that formality centuries ago.”
“I want to shed any reminders of the days when I raged. After this exhibit closes and the pieces reach the Pascuas Segundo in Lima, I will no longer be a collector. I will have left behind that part of my past.”
“But Master, we keep replicas.”
“That is true, but they are like me. I am a replica of the human I once was, a different thing entirely.”
“Yes, Master. The other crates are on their way to the museum. I’ll tell the curator to expect a surprise addition. One more thing. Should I wait for your delivery from South America?”
She referred to his supply of canned cow’s blood. “No. I will handle it.”
“You haven’t slept today.”
“Go to bed. I can take care of myself.”
“So you say. I am gone.”
Diego watched her hop up the carpeted stairs to her bedroom probably stepping to a rock tune. It had been ages since he slept above ground. Restless from too much solitude, he returned to the deck that faced the ocean. Traveling with Mercedes on his yacht must soon become something real. Tomorrow at the market he would see her in sunlight. If he could learn the color of her eyes, the painful rays would mean nothing.