Authors: Amanda Ashley
William Gentry sat in the backyard, a blanket spread over his useless legs, a glass of strong whiskey cradled in his hands. There were times, like now, when sleep eluded him. When that happened, he came out here to try to forget.
He drained the glass and then refilled it from the bottle on the table beside him. He drank to forget old hurts, old wounds, and usually it worked, but tonight not even whiskey could drive away the ghosts of the past.
He remembered the day he had met Barbara. He had taken one look at her and known she was the woman he would marry. They had been dating only a few months when he proposed. He had been surprised when she not only refused to marry him, but refused to tell him why. Not one to give up easily, he had sent her flowers and candy every day, called her every night, until she admitted that she loved him, too, but that marriage was out of the question. It had taken another month before she'd told him why.
“I'm a Vampire hunter, Will,” she'd said. “I can't marry anyone.”
He had looked at her in disbelief. “You're a what?”
“You heard me.”
“It's in my blood, Will. It's what I was born to do.”
He had listened as she explained what she did and how she did it, his stomach churning as she explained, in vivid detail, how one went about staking a Vampire and taking its head. It was a brutal business. She had showed him the kit she carried in the trunk of her car, explained why she always wore a silver cross and carried a small bottle of holy water in her pocket, why she could never have children. He had assured her that none of it mattered. He loved her.
They were married two months later. In his mind's eye, he saw her as she had been on the day they wedâa beautiful, vivacious woman filled with the joy of life. They had been happy together, happier than any other couple he knew. He had hated what she did, but it was a part of her, a part she felt strongly about. They never talked about it. He never questioned her on those nights when she went hunting, never let her know how he worried, always afraid that she wouldn't come home.
A year passed and then another and another, and their joy in each other grew, spilling over into every aspect of their lives together. Sometimes, in the quiet of the night, Barbara lamented the fact that as much as she wanted a child, she would never have one. She had explained to him that few hunters ever married. Spouses and children could all too easily become pawns in the deadly game of cat and mouse that hunter and hunted played. At those times, William had held her and consoled her, but secretly, he had been glad they remained childless. He didn't want to share her life with anyone, not even his own child. And then, after five years of wedded bliss, Barbara had announced that, despite all their precautions, she was pregnant. In spite of her determination not to have a child, she had been overjoyed with the news.
William had pretended to be as happy as she, pretended until the doctor placed a tiny, squirming bundle in his arms and announced that he had a daughter. William had feared that a baby would ruin their lives, but Savanah had drawn them even closer together. Barb had quit the hunt when she learned she was pregnant. Will had never said anything about itâit was her decision, but he had been relieved. He had been busy with his career, but always, in the back of his mind, had lingered the fear that one night Barb wouldn't come home. But Savanah had changed all that. He recalled how happy he and Barb had been at each new milestone in Savanah's lifeâher first smile, her first tooth, her first step, her first word.
He had been content, certain that the future would hold the same joy as the present. And then the unthinkable had happened. The Vampires and the Werewolves came out of the shadows and went to war. He had prayed that Barb wouldn't become involved, but he should have known better.
“I can't just sit at home, Will,” she'd said. “I can't just do nothing while people are being killed. I couldn't live with myself if someone died because I wasn't there to save them.”
He had been at the newspaper office, working late on a story for the morning edition, when he got a frantic phone call from the baby-sitter telling him to get to the hospital as fast as he could; Barbara had been in an accident. It was the call he had been dreading their whole married life.
He didn't remember leaving the office, didn't remember getting into his car and driving to the hospital, didn't remember anything until he reached Barb's bedside. At first, he had been afraid he was too late, that she was already gone. Her skin had been fish-belly white, her lips blue; she didn't appear to be breathing.
“Barb?” He had taken her hand in his, felt the icy coldness of her skin seep into his own. “Barbara!”
Her eyelids had fluttered open and she had stared up at him out of the eyes of a stranger. “Will?”
“Barb! Thank God!”
“What?” He had stared at her, certain he had misunderstood her.
“I want youâ¦to kill me.”
“What are you saying?”
He frowned. “There's nothing wrong with your neck.”
“Lookâ¦” A single tear trickled down her cheek as she turned her head to the side. “Look.”
Somehow, he had known what he would see. Two small red puncture wounds, hardly noticeable.
She was looking at him again, her eyes haunted. “Do it, Will. You have to do it.”
“If you don't do it, the sun will do it in the morning.”
“No! We can handle this somehow.”
She squeezed his hand. He had been surprised by the strength of her grip. “I don't want to burn, Will. I don't want to become what I've spent a lifetime huntingâ¦.”
“Dammit, Barb, I can'tâ¦I don't care what you are.” He swallowed hard. “You can feed off me.”
“No, Will. I won't live like that. And what about Savanah? I can't take a chance of hurting her. Don't let me burn, Will. Please. In the morning, I'll succumb to the Dark Sleep and when I wake again, I'll be a Vampire. You must destroy me before the sun sets. Promise me.”
“I can't,” he said miserably.
“Will, I don't know if I'll be able to control the hunger when I rise. New Vampires sometimes go mad with the lust for blood. I don't want to be a monster. I won't put your life, or Savanah's, in danger. I won't live half a life. I don't ever want Savanah to knowâ¦.”
In the end, he had agreed to do as she asked. Against the advice and wishes of the hospital staff, he had taken her home that evening. He had covered the bedroom window with a heavy quilt to ensure no light could find her. Holding back his tears, he had washed her, dressed her in her favorite lavender-and-white dress, brushed her hair until it gleamed, and then he had sat beside their bed, holding her hand.
As the sun came up, she had whispered that she loved him, and then she had fallen into the deep, deathlike sleep of the Undead.
Early the next morning, a doctor had pronounced her dead and signed the necessary papers. William had called in a few favors and arranged to have her buried that afternoon.
He had sat at her graveside the rest of the day, slowly consuming a bottle of Irish whiskey. Just before sunset, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he had dug up the coffin and looked on the face of his beloved one last time. And then, using Barb's stake and mallet, he had taken the grisly steps required to assure that when the sun set, she would not rise as a newly made Vampire.
William swallowed the hot bitter bile that rose in his throat as he remembered that horrible night, a night forever imprinted on his heart and soul as he had destroyed the woman who had been his wife. If he lived to be a hundred, he would never understand how the gentle woman who had shared his bed and borne their daughter could have spent her adult life doing what he had done that nightânot just once, but dozens of times in her career as a hunter.
In spite of his revulsion, he had become a Vampire hunter that night, though his kills had been few. The war between the Vampires and the Werewolves had ended soon after Barbara's death and his life had returned to normal until a hit-and-run driver put him in a wheelchair. The police had never found the man who hit him, but Will was pretty sure he knew who had been behind the wheel, or at least who had ordered the hit. He had been working on a story about government corruption in the city, and had taken the accident as a sign that he was getting too close to the man behind the money. He knew he was supposed to die that night. By the time he recovered enough to get back to work, the money trail had dried up. All things considered, he supposed someone in the Vampire community might have been behind the attempt on his life, but hit-and-runs really weren't their style.
Will had never been able to prove who had been driving the car that hit him, nor had he ever learned who had attacked Barbara, but he hadn't given up. Hopefully, he would live long enough to solve both mysteries.
Sipping his drink, Will stared up at the stars wheeling across the midnight sky. “I'll find him, Barb,” he murmured. “I'll find him, and I'll make him pay if it's the last thing I do, I promise.”
Rane stopped by to pick up Savanah on his way to the theater the following night, and thoughtfully arranged for her to have the best seat in the houseâfront row center.
She was mesmerized, as always, while she watched Santoro the Magnificent do his act. Even though she had seen his show several times, she was just as fascinated as she had been the first time. Now and then, she wondered what her friends at the newspaper would think if they knew she had a date with him after the show. She had dressed with care that evening, choosing a pair of black slacks and a deep blue sweater that made her eyes seem darker than they were.
Savanah felt a strange sense of satisfaction every time the audience applauded, a kind of proprietary pride in Rane's performance. She didn't understand why she felt that way. It would have been understandable if they were married or engaged, but he was little more than a stranger to her, someone who would soon be gone from her life. Maybe it was just because she had seen his act so many times through the years. Maybe it was because they had spent a few hours together the night before. Whatever the reason, it pleased her when the audience responded to his act.
When he received a standing ovation, she rose with the rest of the crowd, then ducked out the side entrance that led to the dressing rooms. Her heart was pounding with anticipation when she reached his door.
He opened it before she knocked. “Come on in.”
“How did you know I was out here?”
He smiled, a slow sexy smile that made her heart beat even faster. Shirtless and barefooted, he was a feast for feminine eyes. She couldn't help staring at him. He was so beautiful, it was all she could do to keep from reaching for him. Even now, her fingers itched to explore the broad expanse of his chest, to slide up his arms, to measure the width of his biceps, to tangle in his hairâ¦
“There's a bed behind the curtain,” he remarked. His voice was deep and sinfully rich, edged with wry amusement.
She looked up at him, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. “I'm sorry. Iâ¦”
“It's all right, honey. I like the way you look, too.”
She didn't know what to say, so she wisely said nothing.
“I thought we might go dancing,” he said, reaching for a dark gray shirt. “That okay with you?”
Savanah nodded, thinking it was a shame to cover up that beautiful chest, those broad shoulders, those gorgeous arms.
“Or we could go to my place,” he said with a knowing grin, “and I could take it all off.”
She would have said it was impossible, but her cheeks grew even hotter. What was the matter with her? She had never felt suchâ¦such lust, for a man. But then, she had never known a man who exuded such raw masculinity. His voice, his smile, the roguish look in his eyesâ¦Shape-shifter or not, she defied any woman past puberty to resist him.
“Dancing sounds like fun,” she remarked.
He pulled on a pair of soft leather boots, then grabbed a black jacket from the back of a chair. “Let's go.”
She couldn't think of anything to say on the way to the club. She was acutely aware of the man sitting in the car beside her. His scent filled her nostrils, his nearness made her edgy in a way she had never experienced before. Every nerve ending seemed to be on alert, just waiting for the touch of his hand. The fact that he didn't speak made her wonder if he was as nervous as she, though she doubted it. Besides being the sexiest man she had ever seen, he was also the most confident, self-assured man she had ever met.
Rane slid a glance at the woman beside him. He didn't have to rely on his preternatural powers to know she found him attractive, or that she was as nervous as a week-old kitten confronting a hungry tom. He couldn't blame her. She was right to be on edge. He didn't think she was aware of it on a conscious level, but he knew her instinct for self-preservation was warning her that she was in danger. He wondered if she sensed that he wanted more from her than a few nights of passion, that he wanted her life's blood, and perhaps her life, as well.
He pulled into the parking lot a few minutes later. Killing the engine, he turned toward Savanah. Under his gaze, her heart beat a little faster. The sound stirred his hunger. For a moment, he thought of surrendering to the need within him. It would be so easy to take her, here, now, to take it all.
The scent of her fear filled his nostrils, arousing him still further.
Muttering an oath, he got out of the car. After taking a couple of deep, calming breaths, he opened her door and helped her out. He felt the tremor in her hand and cursed himself for putting it there. He smiled, hoping to put her at ease, when he wanted nothing more than to drag her into the shadows and inhale her very essence.
The Midnight Sun was a hangout for the under-thirty crowd. A typical pick-up place, it had a live band, a large dance floor, and a lot of dark, intimate corners.
Rane found a table for two near the back, and after seating Savanah, he went to the bar to order their drinksâa strawberry daiquiri for her, a dry red wine for himself.
A willowy brunette clad in skintight jeans and a low-cut T-shirt sidled up to him while he was waiting.
“Hello,” she said in a breathy voice. “I don't think I've seen you in here before.” Her smile, the tone of her voice, the come-hither look in her eyes, all proclaimed that she was his for the taking.
Rane glanced over her head to the table in the back. Had he been alone, he would have taken what the brunette was so blatantly offering, but Savanah was waiting for him.
“Maybe some other night, darlin',” he murmured.
“Why not now?” she asked with a pout.
“'Cause I'm not alone.”
She raked a dark red fingernail down his cheek. “I'll be here until closing if you change your mind.”
“I just might,” he replied. “You look good enough to eat.”
He wondered if she would have smiled so smugly if she had known he meant it literally. Picking up the drinks the bartender set before him, Rane returned to Savanah.
“Is she a friend of yours?” Savanah asked, glancing at the brunette sitting at the bar.
With a shake of his head, Rane dropped into the chair across from hers. “Never saw her before.”
“Really? She certainly seemed to like what
He shrugged. “Can I help it if women like me?”
“I don't know. Can you?”
In truth, he could, if he put his mind to it, but for the most part, he didn't bother. All Vampires possessed an aura that was almost irresistible to mortals. He could subdue it if he chose to, but why bother when it made hunting so much easier?
Savanah was watching him, waiting for an answer.
Rane shrugged again. “I like women. They like me.”
“Could you try liking them a little less when you're with me?”
He grinned, amused by the spark in her eye and the jealousy in her voice. “Yes, ma'am, I'll do my best.” He jerked his head toward the dance floor. “Wanna give it a whirl?”
Savanah took a sip of her drink, wondering if being in the arms of a man she found so attractive was really a good idea, and then shrugged. What was there to worry about? They were in a public place, after all, and she very much wanted to be in his arms.
Rising, she put her hand in his, felt a familiar tingle as his skin touched hers, and then he was leading her onto the dance floor.
He drew her into his arms with the ease and assurance of a man who knew how to please a woman. The music was like the manâdark, sultry, and sensual. Her body reacted immediately, to both the music and the sheer masculinity of the hard male body pressed intimately against her own. He held her close, so close she knew which way he was going to move before it happened. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach; her heart pounded like thunder in her breast. When she risked a glance at his face, his heavy-lidded gaze captured hers, making her think of sweat-sheened limbs tangled in cool silk sheets.
Time seemed to slow as he guided her around the floor. Caught in the seductive web of his gaze, surrounded by the music, it seemed as if her feet never touched the floor. She wasn't aware of anything else, anyone else, only Rane, his strong arms holding her close, his breath fanning her cheek, his voice whispering in her ear. As the music ended, she glanced up at him. What had he said to her? She recalled the husky timbre of his voice, the way it had made her insides melt like ice cream on a hot summer day, but for the life of her, she couldn't remember a single word he had said other than her name.
He held her chair for her when they returned to their table. Resuming his seat across from hers, he sipped his wine.
Savanah shook her head to clear it. Feeling as though she had just awakened from some kind of enchanted sleep, she picked up her own glass and took a long drink.
“So,” he remarked, setting his glass aside, “aren't you getting tired of watching my act?”
“No, never.” Being a shape-shifter explained how he transformed so easily into a wolf, but it didn't explain how he disappeared from sight, or levitated people and objects off the ground, or did a dozen other seemingly impossible things. “Besides, I'm still hoping to get that story.”
“There is no story. I'm just a magician who's good at what he does.”
“Well, that's not quite all there is to it.”
“True, but you can't print that part.”
“I know.” She couldn't help thinking it was a shame, though. A story about a shape-shifting magician didn't come along every day. In spite of his assurances to the contrary, her instincts told her he was hiding something else, though she had no idea what it might be.
Later, they danced again, but there was nothing out of the ordinary this time. She was thrilled to be in Rane's arms, but she was aware of the other couples around them, of the waiters moving on the fringes of the dance floor, of the jealous gaze of the brunette at the bar.
Returning to their table Rane ordered another round of drinks. They danced a few more times, and then Rane drove her home.
He walked her to her door, then drew her into his arms. “I had a good time tonight.”
“Me, too,” Savanah said with a smile. She was tempted to ask him if anything unusual had happened during their first dance, but she was too embarrassed to mention her temporary lapse, or the fact that she couldn't remember a thing he had said to her.
He caressed her cheek, his fingertips trailing fire as they slid over her skin, and down the curve of her throat. She shivered with pleasure when he bent down to kiss the sensitive place behind her ear, felt her eyes widen as an image of Rane bending over her neck, his lips pulled back to reveal his teeth, burst into her mind.
Startled, she drew back.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Yesâ¦noâ¦I meanâ¦” She shook her head, confused.
“It bothers you, my being a shape-shifter?”
“Isn't that just another word for Werewolf? I mean, you change into a wolf. Doesn't that make you a Werewolf?”
“Would it bother you if I was?”
“Well, a little.” There had been a time when everyone believed that Vampires and Werewolves were just creatures of myth and legend, but then the Werewolves and the Vampires had gone to war, leaving no doubt of their existence, or their danger to the human race. For the most part, the shape-shifters had remained neutral.
“Does that mean I won't be seeing you again?” he asked.
“I didn't say that.”
“I'm not a Werewolf, Savanah. I swear it on the life of my mother. Does that make you feel better?”
“I guess so.” As far as she knew, the shape-shifters were peaceful creatures, preferring to live in small communities of their own kind.
“So, does that mean you'll go out with me tomorrow night?” he asked. “We could take in a late movie after my last show.”
She hesitated a moment, then said, “I'd like that.”
But later, in bed, with the covers pulled up to her chin, the image of Rane bending over her crept into her mind again. She saw him clearly. His dark eyes. His sensuous mouth. His very sharp teeth. If he was the wolf, did that make her Little Red Riding Hood?
Rane stood in the shadows outside Savanah's house, his gaze fixed on a second-story window. He guessed it was her bedroom, since it was the only room showing a light.
Standing there, he closed his eyes, his mind expanding until he felt her thoughts brush his. She was troubled by what had happened on the dance floor, as well she should be. Unable to resist her, he had woven a preternatural spell around her, and then taken a small taste of her life's blood. She was as sweet as he remembered. Her blood had intoxicated him, burning through him like gentle fire. Like an addict, he craved one more fix even though he knew one would never be enough. Even now, it was all he could think of.
He licked his lips as he recalled the taste of her blood, warm and salty, on his tongue. Did he dare take more tonight? A single thought could carry him quickly to her side. He could take what he wanted, what he craved, and wipe the memory from her mind, as he had done earlier that nightâ¦.