He stood at the end of the pier. A full moon shone over the Gulf of Mexico. How many times had he watched the dance of moonlight on water through the centuries? A thousand? Ten thousand? And each time it triggered the same memory. It never went away, never changed.
On the other hand, some things definitely did change. He turned to stare at the amusement rides rising from the long pier behind him. Hard to believe. He owned a freaking amusement park. As weapons of vengeance went, this had to be a first.
He looked beyond his pier to the Castle of Dark Dreams across Seawall Boulevard. Too bad his roller coaster and Ferris wheel blocked Sparkle’s view of the water. He smiled and knew it didn’t reach his eyes. A view would soon be the least of her problems.
He’d named his park Nirvana. Now he needed a new name for himself. He’d used hundreds of them over the centuries. Names attached you to people, to places. He didn’t want attachments. They filled you with all kinds of destructive emotions—love and the need to protect. Been there, failed at that. So when he was ready to move on, he changed his name.
He thought for a moment—about Sparkle, about his revenge—and decided who he’d be in this time and place. Thorn. Because he intended to be a giant thorn in Sparkle Stardust’s treacherous ass.
Thorn stopped thinking about Sparkle as he sensed the three men moving up behind him. Not aggressive, but wary. Not that it mattered. His security chief was nearby. He turned and waited.
They stopped in front of him. No friendly smiles. To be expected. He was the “competition.” They’d wonder what game he was playing. No one would guess, though, not even Sparkle, until the end.
“You’re the owner?”
Thorn nodded. “Thanks for coming.” The speaker had dark hair and eyes that were a distinctive shade of blue. All of the Mackenzie vampires had those eyes. “And you’re Eric Mackenzie.”
Eric frowned. “You have Mackenzie eyes. Who are you?”
“I don’t know any Thorn Mackenzie. A lot of us have changed our names over time, though. What was your original name?”
Thorn tried to look thoughtful. “I don’t remember.” Sometimes it was even true.
Eric’s snort of disbelief said it all. “I don’t know why I took the time to come here.”
You came because I phoned and asked you to come. You decided it was a great chance to meet the bastard that Sparkle’s been whining about every time she’s called you. I planted that suggestion. Thorn would pay for that act of persuasion, but it had been necessary.
“Why’d you send for us?”
Klepoth looked about seventeen. He wasn’t. He had blue spiked hair to go with his blue eyes. But Thorn could see the shimmer of red behind the blue. Demons didn’t always have the best control when they were excited.
“I want to offer you jobs. Here. With me.”
“Why would we want to work for you?”
Thorn studied Zane. Dark hair. Eyes that didn’t seem to know whether they were blue or gray. But no matter the color, there was something about those cold, pale eyes that worried Thorn. Sorcerers were unpredictable. And this one was more dangerous than most. Thorn needed him, though.
“I can offer you more of what each of you wants than Sparkle Stardust ever could.”
He met their gazes—his vampire, demon, and sorcerer—and told them exactly what he was offering. Thorn infused his words with his power.
When he finished speaking, he waited.
But not for long.
“Wow, count me in.” Klepoth’s red eyes announced how excited he was about his new job.
Eric didn’t hesitate. “I’ll give Sparkle my two weeks’ notice.”
“Finally, a challenge. I can explore my limits.” Zane’s wicked grin said he didn’t believe he had any limits.
Thorn nodded. “Welcome to Nirvana.” That might be misleading. He had no way of knowing if they’d discover their own nirvana here. Everyone found their bliss in different ways. Not that he gave a rat’s ass about them.
He watched them leave. Thorn wouldn’t trust them with his ultimate plans. But that didn’t mean they served no purpose. They’d help him create the most spectacular amusements on the planet. And as long as they worked for him, Sparkle wouldn’t be able to use their power to destroy Nirvana.
Thorn returned to staring out at the Gulf. They were his. No matter what arguments Sparkle or anyone else threw at them, they wouldn’t change their minds. Couldn’t change their minds.
Because once he “persuaded” someone, they stayed persuaded until he released them. That was his power, and he’d wielded it again after denying it for so many centuries to make sure Sparkle’s Castle of Dark Dreams became the Castle of Shattered Dreams.
And if he regretted taking away their free will—because the gods knew he’d experienced the hell of controlling nothing in his own life—he appeased his conscience with a reminder that he’d pay for the power he’d used on the three men. Nothing was free. The monster was awake, and he’d have to starve it into submission. Even after two hundred years, he remembered the agony. But if it meant making peace with his memories, the pain would be worth it.
“When I find the owner of that abomination, I’ll shove my heel where it’ll do the most good.” Sparkle stood at the castle’s window with her night-vision binoculars trained on the amusement pier across the street. “Crap. I can’t see past that damn Ferris wheel.”
Kayla glanced down at Sparkle’s tall platform boots with the five-inch stiletto heels and winced. Ouch. She edged away from the other woman. What had Dad gotten her into?
This was her client? A woman named Sparkle Stardust who wore ass-kicking boots, black leather pants, a black corset, and until she’d put it down to pick up the binoculars, had been wielding a whip? Bizarre.
Okay, keep this on a professional level. “Exactly what will I be doing while I’m here, Ms. Stardust?” Her father hadn’t told her a thing before sending her to Galveston except to say that this was a test, her first job as a member of the family business, and that she’d have to deal with a difficult client. Kayla took a deep breath. Love you too, Dad.
“I’ve never been a Ms. Stardust. Call me Sparkle. And you’ll be helping me get rid of that.” She took the binoculars from her eyes long enough to spear Kayla with a hard amber stare.
Uh-oh. Kayla didn’t need to ask what “that” was, so instead she asked the all-important question. “How?”
Sparkle pushed her dark red hair from her eyes and got back to spying. “I don’t know. Be creative. I’ve used every crooked legal trick Holgarth could come up with to stop construction, but none of them worked. Nirvana opens tomorrow along with that butt-ugly big parking garage the city let them build alongside my theme park.”
Sparkle didn’t take the binoculars from her eyes. “My lawyer.”
“Maybe Mr. Holgarth missed something.”
She cast Kayla a puzzled glance. “I doubt it. And Holgarth is his first name.”
“Oh.” Well, we all dealt with the names we were given. “So why do you think the owner built right there?” Kayla was distracted for a moment as something strange registered. She looked at the big gray cat that stared unblinkingly at her from the couch. Sparkle and the cat had the same shade of amber eyes. A coincidence? Had to be.
Sparkle made an impatient sound. “It’s obvious. He, she, or it—could be an evil consortium—wants to leach off the amazing popularity of Live the Fantasy. Of course, Nirvana is nothing more than an ordinary amusement park with boring ho-hum rides that lack any kind of creative brilliance.”
“You understand nothing.”
Kayla swallowed her words along with her temper. The client was always right. Do not tick off the client by telling her to shove her stupid park. “I’m listening.” Besides, Sparkle wasn’t the one making her mad. Kayla was aiming all her hostility at her manipulative father.
Her dad’s whole life revolved around his work as a PI, and he’d always assumed his children would join him in the “family” business. Kayla couldn’t convince him that once she earned her law degree she would get her thrills by winning court cases not sneaking around spying on people. Sending her here was his idea of giving her some field experience. She took a deep calming breath and refocused on Sparkle.
“I built Live the Fantasy because I believed adults would flock to a theme park that allowed them to role-play their innermost fantasies. Even forbidden ones.” She smiled. “I was right. The Castle of Dark Dreams is only one of the park’s attractions, but it’s the only one that’s also a hotel. Guests love the whole castle experience.” She muttered a few curses aimed at the dirtbag owner of Nirvana. “And part of the experience was the great view. Until that.”
Evidently “that” was now the code word for Nirvana.
Sparkle lowered the binoculars to look at Kayla. “I assume you’ve noticed my totally incredible outfit.”
“It would be tough to miss.” Kayla thought her word choice was ambiguous enough not to offend Sparkle.
Sparkle nodded. “When I finish here, I’ll go down to the castle’s great hall and become a wicked vampire who enjoys making helpless men her blood slaves. Of course, eventually the fearless vampire slayer shows up to kick my butt and save the slaves.” Her smile was filled with sly knowledge. “The slaves rarely thank their savior.” She flung her arms wide to encompass the whole park. “And that’s just one fantasy. Every attraction in Live the Fantasy has a variety of role-playing opportunities. They last for a half hour and then our customers can move on to another one.”
Kayla widened her eyes. Dad had told her this was an adult theme park, but he hadn’t elaborated. And he’d loaded her on the plane for Texas before she’d had time to do any research. “What a unique concept. I’m impressed.”
Her praise seemed to put Sparkle in a better mood.
“So you understand why I’m so upset that some bastard has built his dull and dreary amusement pier right under my nose.” Sparkle put her binoculars up to her eyes again. “In the morning we can talk strategy and . . .”
Kayla waited impatiently for Sparkle to finish her sentence. She had flown into Hobby Airport, hired a taxi to take her to Galveston, and then been whisked to Sparkle’s suite in the Castle of Dark Dreams. She was tired. All she wanted to do was to go to her room and sleep.
Sparkle never did finish that sentence. Instead she dropped her binoculars and swung to stare at the gray cat, her eyes wide and shocked. “Eric, Klepoth, and Zane just left Nirvana. They’re on their way into the castle. What the hell were they doing there?”
Kayla frowned. If Sparkle was waiting for the cat to spout words of wisdom, she’d wait a long time.
Sparkle grabbed Kayla’s hand and dragged her toward the door. “Let’s go. I want to catch them while they’re still together.”
“But don’t you have a fantasy to do?” Kayla couldn’t help it. She was anal when it came to duty and job performance. A weakness.
“Holgarth will find someone else. Now move it.” Sparkle sounded as though she was talking through clenched teeth.
Kayla didn’t argue. If Sparkle expected her to make Nirvana go away, she’d need every scrap of information she could get. She glanced down to see the cat padding alongside them. Unusual. Cats didn’t do much following on command.
They raced down the winding stone steps instead of taking the elevator, ran across the great hall, and reached the hotel lobby in record time. Kayla was still busy congratulating herself on surviving with no broken limbs when Sparkle shouted.
Three men who stood just inside the entrance turned and then strode toward them.
Kayla sucked in her breath. Talk about spectacular. She didn’t think of herself as shallow, but wow, just wow.
They stopped in front of Sparkle.
One of them—a man with pale eyes that looked as though they could ice over with a single blink—nodded at Kayla.
“And you are?” His question sounded casual, but something else seemed to flow beneath the surface.
Kayla scooped her jaw off the floor and answered. “Kayla Stanley.” She didn’t owe him any other explanation. If Sparkle wanted him to know more, she’d tell him.
Sparkle ignored Kayla and moved closer to the man. “What were you doing inside Nirvana, Zane?”
Zane narrowed his eyes at her tone. “Meeting with the owner. He offered me a job, and I accepted. Consider this my two weeks’ notice.” He didn’t wait for Sparkle’s mouth to close before walking away.
Well, that was interesting. Kayla looked at the two remaining men.
Sparkle stared at the boy who’d spoken, and now that he was closer Kayla could see he really was a boy. About sixteen or seventeen. Beautiful even with the blue spiked hair.
“Why, Klepoth?” They seemed the only words that Sparkle could manage.
“More money, more everything.”
Kayla got the feeling that the “everything” was important. She wanted to ask what it was, but decided against calling attention to herself when she saw Sparkle’s expression. Kayla worried that Sparkle was about to tug off her boot and go to work on the unsuspecting Klepoth.
But all Sparkle did was glare at him before shifting her attention to the last man. She didn’t seem to notice when Klepoth left.
“You were in Chicago. When did you get in? What happened? Talk to me, Eric.” Her expression softened a little.
“The owner of Nirvana called. He said he had an offer for me. You’d spent so much time ranting about him that I decided to fly in. Glad I did. I’ve decided to accept. You’ll have to find someone else to take care of things in Chicago. I’ll stay on for two weeks before I start working at Nirvana.”
Eric didn’t sound guilty, he didn’t sound anything. He sounded disconnected, distant from the words he spoke. That probably meant something, but Kayla found it hard to concentrate on his words because she was having a tough time looking away from his gorgeous eyes. She didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone with eyes that brilliant shade of blue. Once a long time ago she’d visited Moraine Lake in Canada. His eyes were the blue of that lake.
Sparkle tentatively reached out toward Eric and then yanked her hand back. Her expression hardened. “What’s his name?”
“Thorn Mackenzie.” He turned away.
“Mackenzie?” Sparkle seemed too shocked to call him back.
From the look on Sparkle’s face, the name meant something to her.
As Eric walked away, Kayla breathed deeply and refocused on Sparkle. She took an instinctive step back. Sparkle had narrowed her eyes to amber slits. And if Kayla didn’t know better, she’d swear they glowed.
Sparkle looked down at the cat who’d planted his ample bottom on the toe of her boot. “Do something, Mede.”
Okay, her client had officially lost it. Kayla would call Dad as soon as she got to her room and explain that she couldn’t work with the insane.
Her thoughts about where the nearest mental health facility might be were interrupted by the sound of an explosion. She rushed to the glass doors along with Sparkle, the cat, and everyone else in the lobby. Across the street, a small stand right inside the entrance to Nirvana was now nothing more than twisted metal.
“I blew up a refreshment stand. Best I could do, sweetbuns. Made it look like an electrical problem. We don’t want the cops opening a major investigation.”
Kayla actually felt her heart stop and then start again. She’d just heard a voice in her head.
“Give the lady a prize.”
A sarcastic voice. Frantically, Kayla scanned the people around her. Maybe she needed the mental health facility.
“Your head’s fine, babe. Yo, down here. The cat.” He sounded impatient with her obvious density. “Sparkle should’ve spent less time with her binoculars and more time explaining things to you.” The cat stared at the glass doors and they opened. “I’m Ganymede.”
Sparkle interrupted the craziness happening in Kayla’s head.
“Mackenzie might still be over there, Mede. Find him. Incinerate his ass. Or send him into the past, the future . . .” She paused for some teeth grinding. “I don’t give a damn as long as he’s gone.” Then she paused and took a deep breath. “I’ve changed my mind. Don’t kill him. A murder would bring the police around. We don’t need them creeping through the castle looking for a killer.”
“How about if I pound the crap out of him?” Ganymede looked hopeful.
Sparkle nodded. “Fine.”
“There’re some undamaged candy bars over there calling my name, honeybunny. I’ll fortify myself with a few, and then I’ll get right on the beat-down.” He padded toward Nirvana, his tail a plumed feline question mark.
Fitting. Kayla curled her hands into fists to stop them from shaking. What was Ganymede? Who was Sparkle Stardust really? What had just happened to her sane and ordered world? And how long before she hyperventilated herself into unconsciousness? “Someone better explain things to me right now or else I’m catching a taxi back to Hobby Airport and heading home.” Maybe forcefulness would hold the hysteria at bay. Breathe slowly, breathe deeply.
“Don’t be such a baby.” Sparkle sounded annoyed. “I’ll explain things later. Right now I have to talk to a few people. Stay with me.”
Kayla wanted to run from this place where cats talked in your head and clients had names like Sparkle Stardust. But as she calmed a little, the denials began. She’d imagined the voice. I’m not insane. It was all a giant hoax. Sparkle was the crazy one. Neither explanation made her feel better. Then she thought about her father.
He’d made it clear that Sparkle was an important client. And Kayla had made it clear that she didn’t want to join the family business. But she did need help with law school expenses. This job would pay well and keep her father off her back for a little while longer. But a freaking voice in her head? Before she bolted, though, she’d get some answers.
“Did your cat just speak to me in my head?” Saying it out loud sounded…delusional.
“Yes.” Sparkle held up her hand. “Later.”
Stay calm. Kayla narrowed her eyes. To hell with later. She asked another question. “How?”
Sparkle waved her hand in an I-don’t-have-time-for-this gesture.
Kayla would get an answer to one of her questions. “Why are you so important to my father?” Does he know about the talking cat?
Sparkle paused to stare at her. “Didn’t he tell you? I brought your mother and father together.”
“It was your fault.” And if Kayla sounded outraged, she had a right to her anger. “My parents were a disaster together. Other than the sexual attraction, they never agreed on one thing. They did nothing but fight until the day they divorced. How could you not see how wrong they were for each other?”
Sparkle brightened. “Wrong for each other, but perfect for me. They were one of my success stories.”
Kayla glared. “You’re a sick woman. And why was my father so determined for me to come here? I have zero experience. Either of my brothers would’ve done a better job.” What had Sparkle meant by one of her success stories?
Sparkle began walking again. “I told your father to send his daughter because I assumed the owner of Nirvana was male.”
Kayla couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You want me to use my sex?” She said nothing else because if she tried to speak, she’d just sputter. Not a professional response.
Sparkle seemed puzzled. “This is war. We use every weapon we have.” A tiny smile tugged at the corner of her lips before disappearing. “And I can make you into a very powerful weapon indeed.”
Kayla clenched her fists and kept up with Sparkle. If she decided to stay—and that was a giant neon “if” right now—they’d have to come to an agreement over the terms of Kayla’s employment. She had one more question for now. “The name Mackenzie seemed to mean something to you. What?”
Sparkle’s heels made angry click-clacks as she crossed the great hall. She didn’t bother to look at Kayla.
“It means the owner of Nirvana is a vampire.”
Kayla was outta there.