"That must have been very confusing."
"Yeah. Papa Olaf understood, though, and he told me what was happening. At first, I was scared, but he made it fun, like we were in a special, secret club just for us." Austin smiled. "We would spend hours fishing on his favorite lake in Minnesota, having long conversations without either of us saying a word."
Darcy suppressed a twinge of sorrow. She still missed having long talks with her sisters. "You were lucky to have him."
"Yes. He warned me to be careful with the gift, but as I grew older, I became bolder and... conceited, I guess. I considered myself the grand protector of my three younger sisters. When their friends came over, I would read their minds and chase them off if I didn't like what I heard."
Darcy snorted. "I bet your sisters loved that."
He grinned. "I wondered at the time why they weren't properly appreciative. Now, I realize I was acting like a know-it-all bully." His smile faded. "My powers took a big leap forward when I was about fifteen, and I started bragging about what I could do. It upset my father. He'd always been envious of the close relationship I had with my grandfather. He became convinced that Papa Olaf was an evil influence in my life. He even thought my grandfather was training me in the occult."
"Oh, no." Darcy propped her head up on her hand. "What did your father do?"
"He forbade me to ever see my grandfather again. I reacted angrily, claiming he could never stop us from talking to each other because we could enter each other's minds at will. That freaked him out enough that he packed up the family and moved us to Wisconsin. He told me my powers were evil, and I should never use them again."
"Oh, I'm so sorry." Darcy stroked Austin's brow. "It must have been terrible for you."
He shrugged. "That's when I realized I wasn't nearly as powerful as I'd thought. I couldn't reach my grandfather over a long distance. I was in a new high school, and I didn't want to be seen as a freak. My sisters were mad at me because the move had separated them from their friends. I... I gave in. I wanted everyone to be happy with me, so I tried to be normal. I tried to make my father proud. I was on the football and swim teams. The perfect student all through high school and college."
Darcy sighed. She knew too well what it was like to feel trapped in a world where you couldn't be yourself. "What happened to your grandfather?"
"I was in college when he called and asked me to come see him." Austin closed his eyes briefly. His lips thinned as a pained expression pinched his face. "I hardly recognized him, his health had deteriorated so badly. I hadn't realized how much he needed me. He begged me to stop denying who I really was, to embrace my gifts and use them for the power of good. He told me to never be ashamed, that there was a reason God had made me the way I was, and that it was up to me to discover that reason."
"He was a good man," Darcy whispered. His philosophy reminded her of Maggie's, though she would never understand what good could come from being a vampire.
Austin sighed. "I felt like I had betrayed him. And betrayed myself. So, I promised him on his death bed that I would do as he asked. I joined the CIA and developed my skills so I could fight evil."
"Like me?" she asked dryly.
He gave her an irritated look. "Don't insult the woman I love."
With a smile, she rested her head on his shoulder. Now she understood why Austin was driven to use his powers to protect the innocent and defeat evil. She couldn't expect him to give it up. His gift was too rare and special to be squandered away. "I bet you used to dress up like a superhero for Halloween."
He chuckled. "Yes. I especially liked the capes."
"And you had Superman underwear?"
He nodded. "And Spiderman pajamas. My lunch-box was the Incredible Hulk."
She smoothed a hand over his muscular chest and defined abs. "Oh, yeah. You're incredible, all right."
He rolled onto his side, smiling. "I bet you had a Malibu beach Barbie."
Darcy laughed. "And the beach house, too."
"An ail-American sweetheart." He rubbed a hand up and down her back. "Tell me what happened to you."
Her smile faded. "I'd rather not."
"I want to know."
"I died. End of story."
"You were a television reporter. I've seen the tapes. You were entertaining and clever." He brushed her hair back. "I've been trying to figure out what happened. I went to see your old cameraman, Jack."
Darcy's breath hitched. "How is he?"
"Not good. Something scared the hell out of him. He thinks you were abducted by blood-sucking aliens."
She winced. "Poor Jack."
"Tell me what happened. It was four years ago on Halloween."
"I was doing a story on kids who pretend to be vampires." She gave him a doubtful look. "Do you really want to hear this?"
"Yes. Tell me."
Darcy shuddered as she allowed the memories to escape from the mental file where she kept them locked away. "We went to a club in Greenwich Village, not far from Washington Square. It was called Fangs of Fortune. Jack had his old video camera. We were going to interview a few kids and leave."
She closed her eyes briefly. "A couple from NYU came to our table. Draco and Taylor. Draco had dental implants that looked like fangs. Taylor was a sweet girl, just wanting to be noticed. They posed for the camera, then left. Then, I spotted a pair of odd-looking men, and I went to their table."
"Who were they?" Austin asked.
"Gregori, dressed in a tuxedo, as usual. The other was a Scotsman dressed in a red and green kilt."
Austin stiffened. "He sounds like the vampire who kidnapped Shanna when I was guarding her. Tall, red hair pulled back into a ponytail, and he talks like a cross between Shrek and Billy Connolly?"
Darcy smiled sadly. "Yes. That would be Connor." She'd thought his accent was so cute at first. "I thought they might be police officers. They did admit they were there because they'd heard bad things were happening at the club. I just thought they meant drugs."
She sighed. "I told them they looked too old to be playing pretend like the kids. Connor said they had no need to pretend. And that I had no idea how old he really was."
Austin frowned. "It sounds like he was toying with you."
"I thought they were joking. Especially when Connor claimed he was actually a vampire."
Austin sat up. "He admitted it to you?"
"He and Gregori were joking back and forth. I didn't believe a word of it, and they knew it. I even asked Connor if the Loch Ness monster had been the one to transform him. And he said I shouldn't make fun of his dear Nessie. We were laughing and having a good time until I asked Jack to come over and record them. Then, they got very nervous."
"Jack's camera wasn't digital?"
"No. All of a sudden, I felt this icy cold in my head that said I would not record them. The voice told Jack and me to leave. The next thing I knew, Gregori and Connor were no longer at the table. They were at the bar, drinking something red that looked like blood. I was so disgusted and confused, I grabbed my purse and headed for the nearest exit."
"To the back alley?" Austin whispered.
Darcy covered her face, but the horrid memories flooded her mind. "It was too awful."
Austin wrapped his arms around her. "Not if you share it with me. Tell me."
She lowered her hands. "I'll try."
"I slipped into the alley with Jack," Darcy began.
"My nerves were on edge, and I remember jumping when the metal door banged shut. A nearby Dumpster stank. When I heard scuffling noises, I was afraid it might be rats." She snorted. "I wish."
"What happened?" Austin asked.
"I heard a woman scream, so I ran around the Dumpster. It was Taylor, the girl I'd met in the club. A man had shoved her against the wall, and his face was pressed against her neck. I thought it was her boyfriend Draco. His clothing looked similar. But the embrace wasn't consensual. Taylor was clearly terrified. I grabbed the guy's shoulder and yelled at him to stop."
"But he didn't," Austin guessed.
Darcy grimaced. "He made this awful, animal-like growl deep in his throat. It scared me, but he was hurting Taylor, so I tried to pull him back. That's when Jack turned on his camera lights, and I realized the attacker wasn't Draco. And he was biting Taylor on the neck. I was so furious then. I pounded on his back. Jack yelled at me to stop, but it was too late."