Authors: Amanda Ashley
She couldn't stifle a gasp when Rane's arm circled her waist and drew her close. She could feel the latent strength of him, knew that he could crush her with no effort at all. Never in her life had she felt so helpless, so vulnerable.
She looked up at him, hardly daring to breathe. The rest of the world faded away until all she saw, all she knew, was this man holding her close, his breath fanning her cheek as he bent his head toward hers. He was too near, his presence too overpowering. She started to say she had changed her mind, but it was too late. His mouth captured hers in a kiss that left no room for coherent thought, no room for anything beyond the wave of sensual heat that unleashed a familiar tingling in the pit of her stomach and threatened to turn her blood to liquid fire. For a moment, she stared into the depths of his eyes, and then, with a sigh, she closed her eyes and surrendered to his touch.
Kensington Publishing Corp.
She knows why
The magician billed as the Remarkable Renaldo stood alone in the center of a large, well-lit stage. A pair of tight black trousers clung to his long, muscular legs. His feet were shod in a pair of supple black leather boots. A long black cloak hung from a pair of broad shoulders and swirled around his ankles when he moved. Posed against the bloodred curtains behind him, he was a formidable sight, one to make nine-year-old Savanah Gentry press closer to her father. Savanah didn't know what the devil looked like, but she had always imagined him as being ugly and wearing a long black cloak. The Remarkable Renaldo had the cloak, but he definitely wasn't ugly, and as far as she could see, he didn't have horns or a tail.
The magician looked out over the audience. “For my final illusion of the evening, I will need several volunteers.”
Savanah Gentry nudged her father. “Raise your hand.”
“Raise your hand!” She was eager to know how the magician did his tricks. Perhaps, if her father got on stage, he could find out. “Hurry, Daddy!”
William Gentry looked at his only child. As always, he could deny her nothing that was in his power to give, and so, with a shake of his head, he raised his hand.
“You, there in the fourth row,” the magician said, gesturing for Savanah's father to come forward.
“Is it all right if my daughter comes with me?”
The Remarkable Renaldo turned his attention to Savanah. The touch of his gaze on her face sent a shiver down her spine. It wasn't fear; it was more like the feeling she had on Christmas morning when she knew the present she had hoped for all year was waiting for her under the tree. Hardly daring to breathe, she waited for the magician's decision.
“If you wish,” Renaldo decided at last.
Savanah felt as if her heart were trying to jump out of her chest as she followed her father up the stairs and onto the stage, which was empty of props or scenery save for an ordinary-looking white door that was mounted on wheels and stood in the middle of the floorboards.
The magician quickly selected three other men. Then, with a flourish, he moved across the stage to stand beside the door. He opened it, stepped through, and then turned toward the men.
“Gentlemen. And little lady,” he added, sketching a bow in Savanah's direction, “please examine the door and see that it is quite ordinary.”
Savanah's father was the first to step forward. He ran his hands over both sides of the door, inspected the frame from top to bottom, and then stepped through the opening.
The other men did likewise.
Feeling self-conscious, Savanah stepped through the opening, then hurried to her father's side.
“And now, if you will examine the floor,” the magician requested. “All of it. I wish you to assure the audience that there are no hidden trapdoors.”
Amid some laughter from the audience, all the men got down on their hands and knees and crawled around the stage, running their hands over the floorboards. One by one, they gained their feet.
“Are you all quite satisfied?” Renaldo asked.
The men nodded in the affirmative.
“Very well.” The magician turned to face the audience once more. “May I please have four more volunteers?”
Hands went up all around the room, along with shouts of “Over here” and “Pick me.”
When the new volunteers had been chosen and were onstage, the magician pointed to one of the men and said, “I would like you to move the door to a place of your choosing. Anywhere at all. On the stage, of course,” he added with a smile.
The man looked thoughtful a moment. After closing the door, he pushed it toward the middle of the stage, as close to the footlights as possible.
“Very good,” the Remarkable Renaldo said. He turned to the other volunteers. “If you will all follow me, I would like you to form a circle around the door so that you will be able to see me clearly from every angle.”
Savanah looked at the magician, wondering if he meant her, as well, but afraid to ask.
As though reading her mind, he turned toward her and smiled. “You, too, my little lady,” he said with a courtly bow.
Everyone on the stage moved toward the door's new location, making a loose circle around it.
Savanah felt her cheeks flush with heat as she took a place in the circle, with her father on her right and another man on her left.
The eyes of everyone on the stage were focused on the magician as he stepped into their midst and instructed them to hold hands.
When they complied, the Remarkable Renaldo opened the door. He stuck his arm through the opening, waved to the crowd, and then closed the door.
“I hope you have enjoyed this evening's performance,” he said, looking out at the audience, “but the time has come for me to bid you adieu.”
And so saying, he opened the door and stepped across the threshold.
And disappeared from sight.
Northern California, sixteen years later
Savanah Gentry stared at the stage, her eyes narrowed as she studied the magician who strutted back and forth. This time, he was billed as Santoro the Magnificent. He wore his long black hair pulled away from his face and his attire was a little different, but she knew he was the same man she had seen on a number of other occasions under a variety of names. Clad in a pair of tight black trousers, a white muscle shirt that clung to his upper body like a second skin, and a pair of knee-high black leather boots, he was the most handsome man Savanah had ever seen. She had seen him at least a dozen times in the last sixteen years, thanks to her father's fascination with magicians.
She had to admit that she was also intrigued by the art of magic and by those who practiced it, even though she knew none of it was real, and that the amazing effects performed on stage were accomplished through collusion with a member of the audience, misdirection, deception, or sleight of hand. She knew David Copperfield hadn't really made the Statue of Liberty disappear, but she had been amazed by the video just the same.
Of course, magic was a two-way street, with the magician attempting to perform a trick that was so incredibly clever it would completely baffle the audience, while the audience let itself be entertained by an effect they knew was accomplished through deception.
William Gentry's passion for magic, illusion, and the Supernatural bordered on obsession, surpassing even his daughter's interest. He seemed especially obsessed with the man now calling himself Santoro the Magnificent, and had, in fact, compiled a notebook that spanned the magician's career over the last sixteen years. Of course, finding the magician through the years had been hit and miss, since he continually changed his name. And now Renaldo or Zander or Antoine or whoever he was, was in Kelton again, albeit under yet a different name.
Savanah had gone to the theater every night for the last week. Sitting in the front row, she couldn't decide if the “Magnificent” in Santoro's title referred to his remarkable abilities as a magician, his arrestingly handsome face, or his incredible physique. Most likely all three.
She had to admit that, aside from his astonishing good looks and his hard, lean body, he was far and away the best prestidigitator she had ever seen, and she had seen many. Santoro the Magnificent didn't do anything as ordinary as sawing a woman in half or making an elephant disappear, although Savanah was pretty sure he could manage both feats with ease. No, he stood on a bare, well-lit stage and performed the impossible. She had seen him step into an open box on the left side of the stage and, seconds later, step out of a similar box on the right side. He had caught a bullet, fired by the local chief of police, in his bare hand. He had levitated a full-grown horse into the air. He had levitated himself three feet off the floor, and while hanging suspended in midair, had invited everyone in the audience who was so inclined to come up and see for themselves that there were no invisible wires holding him up. Savanah had accepted that invitation and left the stage more convinced than ever that he was the real deal, a true magician. A recent article in a neighboring newspaper suggested that Santoro the Magnificent had sold his soul to the devil in order to obtain his remarkable powers. She couldn't help wondering if that also accounted for his devilish good looks.
One of the highlights of the magician's act occurred when he stood in the spotlight at the front of the stage and vanished from sight, only to reappear moments later in the rear balcony of the theater. She had seen similar gags performed before, but always there had been a trick involvedâsome sort of sleight of hand or a stunt double, because it was virtually impossible for a man to teleport himself from one place to another in a matter of seconds.
Savanah would have traded her brand new Jimmy Choo suede bootsâboots that she had scrimped and saved forâto know Santoro's secret. If it was a trickâand what else could it be?âit was the best one she had ever seen. She remembered standing on the very stage he was on now, close enough to touch him, when she was nine years old. Remembered watching him open an ordinary-looking door, step through the opening, and disappear. To this day, she was convinced he had dropped into a cleverly hidden trapdoor. After all, people didn't just vanish into thin air.
Santoro's most astonishing feat occurred when he transformed into a wolf in full view of the audience. Smoke and mirrors, some said, but Savanah was sure it was more than that. Mere illusion, others said, and she might have agreed if she hadn't seen him perform, up close and personal, on several occasions. There were rumors that he was a Werewolf, but she had dismissed the idea, since she had seen him change on nights when the moon wasn't full.
Savanah recalled seeing him perform on her fourteenth birthday. He had been billing himself as The Marvelous Marvello at the time. Once again, he had called her out of the audience. Was it mere chance that he had picked her, or did he remember her as she remembered him? He had bid her watch closely as two men tied his hands and feet with thick rope and then bound him with golden chains. Once again, he had disappeared before her eyes, leaving the ropes and chains behind.
The last time she had seen him, he had been calling himself the Great Zander, but she had known it was him the minute he'd walked onto the stage. Hardly daring to blink, she had watched his every move closely, hoping to catch him using sleight of hand or a device of some kind as he performed one amazing trick after another, convinced once again that he was either the greatest magician since Harry Houdini, or a wizard gifted with Supernatural powers. That had been two years ago.
Last night, Santoro had again called her out of the audience. He had taken her hand in his and kissed her palm, sending little frissons of electricity shooting up her arm. He had felt it, too, she was sure of it, though he had given no sign of it. Even-voiced, he had asked her if she was afraid of heights and then explained that he was going to levitate her. She had expected him to put her into some kind of trance or hook her up to an invisible wire while he distracted the audience; instead, he had looked into her eyes and then, to her utter astonishment, he had lifted his hand and she had risen vertically into the air. She had hung there for what seemed like an eternity, with his gaze locked on hers, before he slowly lowered his hand until her feet again touched the floor. Before she'd left the stage, his gaze had caught and held hers. In that brief moment, she had found herself wondering again if he remembered her from times past and then, to her amazement, she realized that he hadn't changed at all. He looked exactly the way he had when she had first seen him sixteen years ago. Why hadn't she ever noticed that before?
Now, as he finished his act, she applauded as wildly as the rest of the audience. Perhaps he really was a wizard. Perhaps he was a magician in league with the devil, but whatever he was, he was the most amazing showman she had ever seen.
In his dressing room, Rane Cordova removed the trappings of Santoro the Magnificent and slipped into a pair of well-worn jeans and a bulky black sweater. The crowd had been with him tonight, eager to suspend belief and be entertained. Another two weeks, and he'd move on to another theater in another town. It was an easy life, and one that suited him perfectly. In the winter, he did an eight o'clock show during the week, shows at six and nine on Saturday nights, and one show at eight on Sundays. In the summer, he cut the six o'clock shows. Matinees were out of the question at any time of the year.
He ran a comb through his hair, thinking, as he did so, of the woman he had called on stage that evening. He wondered if it was coincidence that she had been in the audience again, not only in this city, but in others. He had seen the recognition in her eyes when she'd stepped onto the stage, knew she remembered him from times past. The hell of it was, he remembered her, too. She had been a cute kid sixteen years ago.
She wasn't a kid any longer, but a beautiful young woman with hair the color of moonlight. Long and thick, it fell in waves down her back and over her shoulders. Her eyes were a soft shade of blue, reminding him of the noonday sky he hadn't seen in over ninety years. Her skin was smooth and clear, what used to be called a peaches-and-cream complexion. And her mouthâ¦He swore under his breath. Her lips were full and pink, the kind of mouth that made a man think about cool sheets, long nights, and hot skin.
Rane frowned as he turned out the lights. There was something about her that was vaguely familiar. He shook his head. She reminded him of someone he had met long ago.
Grabbing his keys, he left the theater by the back door, quickly blending into the shadows. He sensed the woman waiting for him in the alley, but he passed her by without her ever being the wiser.
In the old days, he had looked forward to talking with his fans. He had answered their questions, signed autographs, and posed for pictures that, when developed, would show only a white haze where his likeness should have been. Oddly enough, in this age of digital cameras and cell phones, his image appeared on the screen, but once the camera or cell phone was turned off, his photo disappeared. He had found a way to turn that peculiarity to his advantage by letting it be known that he was superstitious about having his picture taken. At the beginning of each show, he asked that no photographs be taken, adding that any pictures captured without his permission would vanish from cell phones and cameras. People had been skeptical at first, but when they discovered it was true, the fact that he apparently made his photographs disappear only added to his mystique.
He couldn't explain his inability to be photographed any more than he could explain why he cast no reflection in a mirror. It was just a fact of life, one he had learned to accept long ago, as he had learned to accept so many things that were part of his bizarre lifestyle, not the least of which was his eternal thirst for blood. He had tried to ignore the craving, tried to satisfy it with the blood of beasts, or with blood stolen from hospitals and blood banks, but to no avail. The blood of beasts could sustain his existence but, like blood in bags, offered no satisfaction. Sooner or later, the need for fresh blood drawn from human prey became overwhelming.
It had always been so easy for his brother, Rafe. Rane remembered their first hunt, remembered the woman their father had chosen, the way she had felt in his arms, the enticing beat of her heart, the intoxicating scent of her blood. He had wanted to drink and drink until there was nothing left.
“We're not going to kill her,” their father had said, and Rafe had dutifully obeyed. Rane had complied, as well. What other choice had he had with his father standing there, watching?
But later, when Rafe and his parents were occupied elsewhere, Rane had left the house. He had found a young woman plying her trade on a dark street where nice people didn't go, and he had taken her. Oh, he had given her pleasure firstâshe had deserved that muchâbut in the end, he had taken what he so desperately craved. He had taken her blood, her memories, her life.
Taken it all, and reveled in the taking.
And in so doing, had damned himself for all eternity.
Savanah huddled deeper into her jacket, wondering if Santoro the Magnificent had somehow managed to slip past her in the dark. Of course, being a master magician, she supposed he could have just turned into a bird and flown away. She had lost track of the number of times she had seen his act. Each time, his tricks had been more amazing, more spectacular, than the last. Each time, her curiosity about his prowess had grown. He was no ordinary magician. Of that she was certain. But if his tricks weren't tricks, what were they, and how on Earth did he do them? She didn't believe for a minute that he had sold his soul to Satan, and yetâ¦it made for interesting speculation. She had read countless stories of men and women who had made deals with the devil, trading their souls for youth or longevity, for power or wealth. But they were just fables. At least, she had always thought so, until now.
She waited another half an hour before giving up. He wouldn't elude her tomorrow night. One way or another, she was determined to talk to him. Not only was she eager to satisfy her own curiosity about the man, but she was slated to write an article about him for the local paper. In addition to that, she hoped to include him in a book she was thinking of writing about famous magicians, past and present, magicians like Houdini, David Copperfield, and Criss Angel.
Turning up the collar of her coat, she returned to the parking lot for her car and drove home.
When she entered the living room, she found her father sitting in his favorite easy chair watching a high-stakes poker game on the satellite screen.
“Hi, sweetie,” he said. “How was the show?”
“Amazing, as always.” Taking off her coat, she hung it in the hall closet, then kissed her dad on the cheek before dropping down on the sofa and kicking off her shoes.
“Did you get to interview him?” William Gentry asked.
“No, I didn't see him.” She hated to admit defeat, especially since her father was the one who had given her the assignment. If necessary, she would just write the article without the interview.
Her father chuckled softly. “Seems like he's a hard one to catch. Are you going to try again?”
“Sure, if you want me to, but honestly, Dad, I don't know why you're so determined about this. The man is a great magician, but it's not like he's a rock star or anything. I mean, how many people even know who he is?”