A Very Vampy Christmas (Love at Stake #2.5) by Kerrelyn Sparks
"It's over, Don Orlando." Maggie O'Brian lowered her gaze. The tears that blurred her vision had little to do with the role she was playing—Jessica Goodwin, mortal doctor, hopelessly in love with a vampire. Like any good soap opera actress, Maggie turned her back to the person she was addressing and looked sadly at the camera. "You must never come here again."
"Don't say that!" Don Orlando rushed to her side and sank gracefully to one knee. He seized her hand and kissed it. "My darling Chiquita, I could never let you go."
Chiquita? What sort of cheesy person was writing this nonsense? Maggie inwardly cursed the writer while trying to ignore the way Don Orlando was brushing his lips against her knuckles. Sweet Mary, now he was nibbling her fingers.
But it meant nothing. He was only acting. Rumor had it he'd nibbled a lot more than women's hands in the last few years.
The tear that rolled down Maggie's cheek was worthy of a daytime Emmy. Unfortunately, her lack of a pulse during the day precluded her from attending the ceremony. And how could they give Emmys to a group of actors they didn't know existed? Only a few mortals employed at the Digital Vampire Network knew about vampire soap operas, and they were sworn to secrecy. The mortals knew if they blabbed, they would pay in blood. Literally.
Maggie yanked her hand from Don Orlando's grasp. "I'm sorry, but it was never meant to be."
As Don Orlando rose, he flipped his black silk cape over one shoulder, revealing half of his muscled torso and a thatch of very black, very thick chest hair. Maggie knew this movement caused Vamp viewers at home to sigh in ecstasy. She should know. She'd been one of them. And if Don Orlando executed the famous double flip, throwing both edges of his cape over his shoulders to reveal his entire chest in its muscle-rippling glory, his female fans were known to swoon. No doubt, a few male ones, too.
Maggie wandered to the empty desk of her pretend office. "How many times must I tell you? This is a hospital. You shouldn't come here without a shirt."
"I couldn't wait to be with you." His voice sounded as smooth as his black silk cape. "And the nurses never complain."
"You'll catch a terrible cold." She glanced at him over her shoulder. "Why, it's snowing outside. It's almost Christmas."
He shrugged his massive shoulders. "Mortal diseases do not frighten me. I will heal during my daily death-sleep."
Maggie pressed a hand against her chest and gazed at camera number two. "I swore an oath to protect life. How could I fall in love with one of the Undead?" She whirled to face him and pressed her hands on the desk behind her. This pose was designed to highlight her ample bosom. "That's how you seduced me, isn't it? You used some sort of insidious vampire mind control."
"It was you who seduced me with your pure and noble heart." His gaze lingered on her breasts. "I could not help myself."
"I must resist you. Somehow."
He bowed. "I am Don Orlando de Corazon, the greatest lover in the vampire world. No woman, alive or undead, can resist me."
"But I must!" Maggie strode toward camera number two. "I've worked so hard to get where I am today. Years of med school, endless hours in the ER. And now, I'm a famous brain surgeon. People need me."
"I am very proud of you, my Chiquita."
"Don't say that! I have a reputation to maintain. I need the respect of my peers. How can I have an affair with an undead trumpet player from a mariachi band?"
He lifted his chiseled chin. "I'm a very good trumpet player. And the greatest lover in the vampire world." He swaggered toward her, a hand on the low waistline of his tight black leather pants.
Maggie turned away with a gasp. "Don't tempt me, Don Orlando!"
"Come away with me!" He pulled her into his arms. "We will make beautiful music together."
"No, no, no!" She shook her head in rhythm to her cries.
She planted her hands on his chest to push him away. The ring on her right pinky finger gleamed under the stage lights, bright gold against the coal black chest hair.
He embraced her tighter. "Kiss me and tell me you don't love me."
She turned her tear-streaked face to camera number one. "You're so cruel to make me suffer. Please let me go!" She shoved hard at his chest.
He stumbled back. "Aagh!"
"Aagh!" Maggie's higher-pitched scream joined his when she realized what had happened.
Grimacing in pain. Don Orlando pressed a hand against his now bare chest. And dangling from Maggie's right hand like a dead rat was the mat of black chest hair.
"Aagh!" She shook her hand. "Get it off!" It flopped wildly around her hand, tangled in her pinky ring.
"Dammit, woman!" Don Orlando winced as he rubbed the red welt on his hairless chest. "You nearly ripped my skin off."
"Cut!" Gordon, the director, yelled. "Makeup! We need Orlando's hair glued back on."
Maggie looked at Don Orlando's bare chest, then at the furry pelt dangling from her ring. It was fake? Sweet Mary, she should have known. How many men had body hair like an English sheepdog? She ripped it from her ring and offered it to its owner. "Sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Don Orlando's mouth curled up, and he tapped the red splotch on his chest. "Want to kiss it and make it better?"
"No!" Maggie tossed the chest-toupee at him. "Why do you wear such a silly thing?"
He actually looked embarrassed. For about half a second. "They thought I would look sexier with more hair." He gave her a lopsided smile. "Though right now, I'd be happy if I just had some skin."
Maggie smiled back. For about half a second. Her amusement died when he checked out the makeup girl with a leering grin.
"Hola, pretty senorita," he murmured to the makeup girl. She blushed as she painted his chest with adhesive.
"Shall we adjourn to my dressing room?" He winked. "We could bring the glue and get all sticky." She giggled.
Maggie clenched her fists to keep from slapping him. Sweet Mary and Joseph, she was angry. She'd been angry ever since she'd found out that her adored hero, Don Orlando de Corazon, was nothing more than a womanizing pig. And now, she realized it was even worse. He was a totally fake womanizing pig.
She stalked toward the refreshment table and poured herself a glass of Chocolood. The mixture of synthetic blood and chocolate was as close to comfort food as a lady vampire could get. She frowned at the black strand of hair still caught around the little gold cross on her pinky ring. She untangled the hair, remembering how her father had given her the ring at her First Communion when she was seven. Back then, in 1872, the ring had fit her fourth finger perfectly. She'd loved her pretty white dress, the first dress she'd ever owned that wasn't a hand-me-down from her older sisters.
As the eighth child out of twelve in an Irish immigrant family, Maggie had known hunger and poverty. But she hadn't known about the secret world of the Undead until she'd joined them involuntarily at the age of nineteen. Horrified, she'd tried to go home, but Da had reacted poorly. She'd shown him the ring and how the Holy Cross didn't harm her. Why would her beliefs change just because she was dead? She was still her father's darlin' Maggie May. But Da had disowned her, declaring her an unholy creature from hell.
Maggie sipped her Chocolood, ignoring the pain that still needled her. She didn't want to believe her father was right. She'd been attacked. How could a merciful God blame the victim?
But then, she'd learned that in order to survive, she would have to bite others. Victimize them. And the fear that her father was right grew like a festering wound. Thank God synthetic blood had been invented. It was so much easier to pretend she was a good person now. She wore the cross-shaped ring on her hand to convince herself her heart was still good, even if it stopped beating each day at dawn.
Five years earlier, something stupendous had finally put an end to Maggie's dreary existence. Some clever vampires had discovered that a Vamp's image could be recorded using digital technology, and the Digital Vampire Network had been born. Vampires all over the world were a much happier lot now that they were entertained with the vampire Nightly News and Live with the Undead, a celebrity gossip magazine hosted by Corky Courrant. DVN also introduced their wonderful soap operas—As a Vampire Turns, All My Vampires, and General Morgue.
Then, he had arrived. Four years ago, a new actor had appeared on As a Vampire Turns, and for the first time in Maggie's long life, she was hopelessly in love. Don Orlando de Corazon had burst onto the television screen with a flourish of his black silk cape and a gleam in his dark, passionate eyes, and Maggie was lost. He was the one. The only one for her. And if only he could meet her, he would instantly recognize her as his soul mate. It was her love for him that had given her the courage to audition at DVN. When she'd actually won a role on As a Vampire Turns, it had looked like her dream had come true.
But her dream had become a nightmare. Before her first day on the set, she'd learned the truth. Each night on her gossip magazine, Corky Courrant exposed Don Orlando for his raunchy, womanizing ways. And Maggie was stuck playing Dr. Jessica Goodwin, one of Don Orlando's many conquests.
She'd tried to focus on her acting skills and her new career. But each time she had a scene with him, her heart stuttered in her chest. How could she ever hope to get over him when he kept declaring his undying love for her? But it was all fake. Sweet Mary. even his chest hair was fake!
"Places!" the director yelled. "Let's finish the scene."
Maggie took a deep breath. This was it. In this scene, Don Orlando was supposed to kiss Dr. Jessica. Her first kiss from Don Orlando. It's not real. He probably didn't even know her real name. She stepped into her pretend hospital office, and the makeup girl quickly retouched her powder and lipstick.
"Let's start with 'Kiss me and tell me you don't love me,'" Gordon announced. "Roll 'em."
Maggie's breath hitched as Don Orlando strode toward her.
He swept her into his arras. "Kiss me and tell me you don't love me."
"You're so cruel to make me suffer," Maggie whispered, her knees growing weak. She clung to his shoulders. "Please let me go." Please, kiss me. I've waited four years for this.
He studied her face as he gathered her tighter in his arms. She closed her eyes and wilted against him. When his lips brushed hers, her body trembled. His mouth was warm and gentle. If only he could be the hero she had dreamed of. If only he could love her. If only he could see the goodness in her and cherish her the way she needed. If only miracles could really happen.
"That's great!" the director announced. "Cut and print!"
With a groan, Don Orlando deepened the kiss. He ran the tip of his tongue over her lips, then feathered soft kisses across her cheek to her ear.
"Cut!" Gordon yelled.
"Can you feel it?" Don Orlando whispered in her ear, then gently suckled her earlobe.
"I said cut! Come on, we've got other scenes to do."
Maggie could barely hear the director. Partly because Don Orlando's tongue was in her ear. And also because her heart was pounding incredibly loud. Sweet Mary, he was as wonderful as she'd imagined.
He nibbled down her neck. "You're so beautiful. My sweet… Jessica."
With a gasp, she stiffened. She shoved him back. "My name is Maggie!"
Don Orlando smiled. "Shall we adjourn to my dressing room, sweet… Maggie?"
She slapped him hard.
He stepped back, his eyes wide with surprise. "What—why?"
"Everything about you is a lie. You're not the world's greatest lover. You're the world's greatest fraud! You're a pig and a… a poser!" She spun and stomped off the set.
In his dressing room, Don Orlando grimaced as he peeled the mat of fake hair off his red, raw chest. The world's greatest fraud. Maggie had seen right through him, dammit.
The first time he'd met her, when she was auditioning, she had gazed at him with such adoration in her blue Irish eyes. She hadn't wanted to use him for her career or profit. Her undemanding acceptance had been the sweetest sensation he'd felt since becoming a vampire four and a half years earlier.
He'd asked the director to hire her and give her a role that fitted her. Someone with a pure and giving heart. Someone like Dr. Jessica Goodwin. Not only was the doctor the epitome of goodness, she was madly in love with him, Don Orlando.
But by the time Maggie took her job, she was cold and indifferent. She ignored his attempts at flirtation. He'd tried to show her tonight how he felt with the kiss. And what a kiss! The way she'd melted in his arms, he knew without a doubt that her indifference was feigned. She still adored him. He'd wanted to shout her name to the heavens, but he'd thought the cameras were still rolling, so he'd called her Jessica instead.
And now, she was upset. He needed to apologize and win her back. If only she would look at him once more with adoration in her eyes. It would make his phony existence so much easier to bear. He pulled on a black silk bathrobe over his bare chest and leather pants and strode down the hall to Maggie's dressing room. What could he say to impress her? Anything but the truth. He wanted her passion, not her pity. He knocked on the door.
"Come in." Maggie's face drooped with weary annoyance when he entered the small room.
Damn, he should have brought flowers. For the world's greatest lover, he could sure be an idiot.
Maggie remained sitting in front of her dressing table. "What do you want?"
I want you to love me. No, Don Orlando would never act like a needy wimp. He was macho and aggressive, and it worked. He had stacks of fan mail in his dressing room that confirmed it. Women loved Don Orlando de Corazon, and Maggie would, too. "I could not stay away. Margaret Mary O'Brian, you have bewitched me."
She snorted. "So you saw my name on the door. Should I be impressed that you know how to read?"
"Ever since we first met, your lovely name has been etched into my heart."
"That sounds painful." She leaned over to remove her high-heeled shoes. "You can cut the melodrama. The cameras are gone."
"But my passion continues to burn like a raging fire. I have vowed to make you mine."
Her eyes flashed with anger. "No woman in her right mind would want to be yours. The waiting line is too long."
He winced inwardly. Maggie must be listening to the lies Corky Courrant was spreading on her show Live with the Undead. "My heart belongs only to you, my sweet Chiquita."
"I'm not your banana!" She threw a shoe, aimed at his head.
With vampire speed, he dodged the missile. It clunked against the door. "Ay, caramba, such fiery passion! It sets my loins ablaze!"
"You set my stomach a-hurling!" She torpedoed the second shoe at him, and it hit him squarely in his chest.
"Ouch!" The stiletto heel had stabbed his raw skin. "Why are you so angry with me, Maggie?"
"Are you dense? Do you really expect me to be flattered by your slimy attempt at seduction?"
"What is this sick compulsion of yours to take every woman in the world to bed?"
"That's not true." He gave her his signature sexy look, the one that coupled a lopsided smile with an arched eyebrow. "There is no need for a bed. We can be… creative, no?"
"Aagh!" She jumped to her feet, grabbed a hairbrush off her dressing table, and tossed it at him.
He muttered a curse as he dodged the brush. Why didn't the act work on her? It did on everyone else. Realization struck him just as a flying, black demi-boot bounced off his head. "Dammit, you're different. You don't like Don Orlando."
With a sigh, Maggie slumped onto her chair. "I'm sorry. As old as I am, I should know not to throw things when I'm angry."
He stepped toward her. "Are you angry because I called you Jessica when we were kissing? I can explain. I thought the cameras were still rolling."
Maggie's cheeks turned pink as she looked away. "It's not about the kiss. It's… you and all the women—"
"You shouldn't listen to everything Corky says on her show. She's not telling the truth about me."
"Then it's not true that you had an affair with her?"
He winced. "Well, that part is true."
"And you cheated on her?"
"Well, yes, but there were good reasons."
Maggie snorted. "Reason number one being Tiffany? How many other reasons did you have?"
"It's not what you think." Dammit, he didn't want to tell her the truth. Who would believe it? "I have this problem…"
"I know. Your trousers. They keep falling off."
"No. It's… me. I don't like to be alone."
She snorted. "Pardon me while I cry."
"Maggie, I've been in New York for four years, and I was faithful to Corky till about six months ago. It was one time, when I was angry and frustrated, and Tiffany—"
"Wait a minute." Maggie stood. "Corky makes it sound like you've been with hundreds of women. Thousands."
"She's furious. She's exacting revenge on me."
"Why should I believe anything you say?" Maggie paced across the small room. "You're a total fraud."
He leaned back against the door. "I know Don Orlando isn't real. But he saved me. He gave me a reason for living. He made people love me." He sighed. "Even you loved me once."
Maggie slowed to a stop. "I thought I did, but it was all pretend."
He swallowed hard. "Pretend is all I have."
"Nonsense. There has to be a real you."
If only there was. He turned and grabbed the doorknob to leave. "I'm sorry. I… I wanted you to like me, but—"
"I might like you if I ever got to know you." Maggie strode toward him. "Who are you really?"
He leaned his brow against the door and squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't do it. He couldn't let her see the gaping void inside him. "I'm Don Orlando de Corazon, the world's greatest—"
"Stop it. If you want me to like you, you have to be honest with me. You have to be your true self."
"There is no…" His eyes watered. He couldn't do it. He couldn't subject her to the emptiness. It was hard enough for him to bear. It was the reason he hated to be alone. It was like being with nothing.
Maggie touched his arm. "What's wrong?"
He took a deep breath. "I know Don Orlando is fake. Corky invented him so I could be a star. I'm sorry he offends you."
"Then don't be him," Maggie whispered. "Be yourself."
He snorted. "I wish I could. I wish I could be worthy of you. I wish I had a soul."
"Everyone has a soul."
"Not me. I'm nothing but an empty void."
She stepped back with a frightened look. Of course it scared her. It scared the hell out of him.
He shrugged. "Maybe Corky can explain it. If she's willing to be honest with you. She might enjoy spilling my ugly secret."
Maggie gave him a worried look. "What secret?"
"I can't be myself when I don't know who I am. The stupid role I play is all I have to keep me from slipping into a black hole of nothingness."
"You mean depression?"
"No." Don Orlando grasped the doorknob. "I have amnesia."