Authors: Amanda Ashley
He nodded. “Savanah.”
She looked up at him; when her gaze met his, the phone in her hand was forgotten.
“You will not report this to anyone,” Rane said, his gaze holding hers. “You will forget that it happened. You will remember only that we went to the movies and then I drove you home. Do you understand?”
Taking the phone from her hand, he dropped it into her purse, then took her arm and began walking. “It was a good movie, wasn't it?”
She looked up at him, her eyes slightly unfocused, and then she blinked. “Very good. I'll have to tell Jolie.”
“Who's Jolie?” he asked.
“One of the secretaries at work. We go to lunch together sometimes. I can't wait to tell her about it.”
Smiling, Rane unlocked the car door. He waited for Savanah to get inside, then gently closed the door behind her. He hated to play tricks with her mind, but she really hadn't given him any other choice.
The next two weeks seemed to fly by. Rane gave Savanah a pass to the theater and she went to see his act every chance she got. She never tired of watching him. Each time she saw him perform, she became more convinced that he really was a wizard beyond compare. Not every trick could be ascribed to the fact that he was a shape-shifter. On those nights when, for one reason or another, Savanah couldn't make a performance, she met him in his dressing room after the show. She lost a lot of sleep, but she didn't care.
Rane made her life fun, exciting. They went to the movies again. They took long walks in the moonlight, holding hands and talking about their favorite books and plays and movies. One night he took her sailing on the lake and there, under the stars, they kissed and cuddled like a couple of teenagers.
He filled her every waking thought and her dreams at night. In spite of all her doubts about having a relationship with a man who was not only a shape-shifter but who would be leaving town in a few days, Savanah knew she was falling for him, and falling hard.
She thought it odd that he didn't take any nights off from the theater, but when she asked him about it, he just shrugged and said that, until he'd met her, he didn't have anything else to do with his time, so why not work?
Tonight, they had gone to the mall so Savanah could find a present for her father. His birthday was only a few days away and, as always, she had no idea what to buy him, but then, he had always been a hard man to shop for. He didn't have any hobbies, he rarely took the time to read for pleasure, and he wasn't particularly handy around the house. So she usually bought him clothes. And he either returned them, or they sat on his shelf, untouched, for years. But maybe this year would be different. This year, she had let Rane decide what she should buy in hopes that her father would approve of something another man had picked out.
After they finished shopping for her father, Rane tried on a long black leather duster reminiscent of the coats cowboys had worn in the Old West. It was very flattering, and she told him so.
“If you like it, I'll buy it,” he said, and headed for the customer service desk to pay for it.
“Don't you want to see how it looks?” she asked, thinking it odd that he didn't want to catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror before he shelled out four hundred and fifty dollars.
“It fits,” he said with a shrug. “You like it. I like it. That's all I need to know.”
Rane had paid for the coat and they were about to leave the store when a young woman hurried by calling, “McKayla! McKayla!”
Moments later, the woman rushed past them a second time, her voice rising in panic as she called “McKayla!” again and again. Shortly after that, a Code Yellow came over the loudspeakers, alerting others in the store that there was a lost child. A description of the little girl quickly followed. She was two years old, with curly blond hair and blue eyes, and was wearing a pink-and-white skirt and a hot pink Winnie-the-Pooh T-shirt.
Savanah's heart went out to the mother. Losing a child had to be the scariest feeling in the world, especially these days, when so many children disappeared and were never seen again.
“Stay here,” Rane said, and before Savanah could ask where he was going, he had dropped his shopping bag at her feet and was gone.
Savanah tapped her foot on the floor. She could hear the mother frantically calling for her child as she ran through the store. The fear and desperation in the woman's voice tore at Savanah's heart. Had someone kidnapped the little girl?
Savanah glanced at the time and jotted it down in the small notebook she always carried with her, along with the child's name and description, the headline already forming in her mind.
And then Rane was back, with a pretty little blond-haired girl in his arms. The child's pudgy cheeks were wet with tears. Rane spoke to the salesclerk, who announced that the child had been found and advised the mother to come to the counter in the men's department.
The harried woman showed up, tears streaming down her cheeks as she took her little girl from Rane's arms and crushed her close. “Thank you! Oh, thank you so much. I don't know how she got away from me so fast. One minute she was right beside me, and the nextâ¦” She shook her head. “How can I ever repay you?”
“No need,” Rane said. “I'm just glad she's okay.”
The woman put her arm around Rane's shoulders and gave him a hug. “Thank you again. God bless you.”
Rane nodded, his throat suddenly tight. People had damned him more times than he could count, but he couldn't remember anyone ever asking God to bless him.
Savanah dropped her notebook and pen into her handbag. “How did you find her?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Just luck.”
“I don't believe that.”
“I didn't think you would. If you must know, I smelled her fear and went after her.”
Savanah stared at him. She had heard that animals could smell fear. She didn't know people could. Then again, Rane was a shape-shifter, which gave him powers ordinary mortals didn't possess.
He tucked their packages under his arm. “Ready to go?”
“I guess so.”
As had become his habit, Rane took her hand and they left the mall. On the drive home, Savanah stared out the window, her thoughts on Rane. He wasn't a normal man, and while that added a bit of mystery to their relationship, did she really want to get involved with a man who was different? And just how different was he? Was he like any other man, except for his ability to change into a wolf? If their relationship continued and they married, would their children be shape-shifters, too? She had a sudden image of herself giving birth to a litter of wolf pups.
Grinning inwardly, she shook the bizarre image from her mind. They had only been dating for a few weeks. It was way too soon to be thinking about a relationship, serious or otherwise. Besides, his last show was tomorrow night. In a day or two, he would be leaving town for his next engagement, wherever that might be, and she would probably never see him again.
His voice drew her back to the present. Looking around, she realized they were parked in front of her house. “No, I was just thinkingâ¦”
He switched off the ignition and turned toward her. “Thinking about us?”
“Thinking that you'll miss me when I'm gone?” he asked, one brow arched. “Or thinking you'll be glad to see the last of me?”
She would miss him, she thought, more than she wanted to admit. How could she feel so strongly about him so soon?
“I don't want to miss you,” she said quietly.
“But you will.”
Rane looked at her a moment, then got out of the car. He opened her door and offered her his hand, pulling her up and into his arms.
“I'll miss you, too,” he said, “so much that I think I'm going to have to cancel my next engagement and get to know you better.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “You're going to stay?”
He nodded slowly. “I can't leave you. Not now, not yet.”
“Won't you get in trouble, canceling on such short notice?” she asked, but she didn't really care. All that mattered was that he was staying.
He shrugged. “Maybe, but it doesn't matter,” he said, and then he smiled. “I'll just take a new name and start over.”
She smiled because she couldn't help it, because he wasn't leaving town, because she knew he was going to kiss her. And even then, he was pulling her closer, his dark eyes intense as he brushed a kiss across her cheek, then claimed her mouth with his own.
He leaned back against the side of the car, drawing her with him, so that her body was flush with his from shoulders to thighs. He deepened the kiss and she felt the stir of his arousal, felt her own body grow warm and moist as his tongue plundered her mouth, then laved the sensitive skin behind her earlobe. His teeth nipped her flesh and she pressed herself against him, driven by a need she had never known before. Someone moaned softly. Was it her? She didn't think she had ever made a sound like that in her life, a hungry, lusty purr that was almost a growl.
He lifted his head and looked at her. His eyes were deep and dark, burning with a hunger of their own. “Tell me what you want.”
What did she want? She gazed into his eyes as she weighed her answer. Was it the moon's bright light that made his eyes burn with such fire? Or was it just the reflected glow of her own desire?
Whispering, “I don't know,” she buried her face against his shoulder.
She did know. Why was she being such a coward? Lifting her head, she looked deep into Rane's eyes. “I want you,” she said, “but it's too soon, andâ¦”
“And I'm a shape-shifter.”
If they were to have any kind of lasting relationship, she had to be honest with him. “Yes.”
“Okay.” He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, then slid his knuckles down her cheek. “We'll take it slow and easy.”
And so saying, he wrapped his arms around her and claimed her lips a second time.
It was more than just a kiss, she thought, swaying against him. It was a promise of more and better things to come.
Savanah was still thinking about Rane's parting kiss when she slid her key into the lock on the front door, only to find the door already unlocked. That was odd, she thought. She knew she had locked it when she left. Even though they lived in a small town, her father always insisted on locking the doors, undoubtedly a holdover from the days when he had investigated high-profile cases involving drug lords, hookers, and politicians on the take.
Shrugging it off, she stepped into the living room, Rane still uppermost in her thoughts. One thing was for certain: whether he was a man or a magician, Santoro the Magnificent knew how to kiss. She could still taste him on her lips and her tongue, feel the heat of his body pressed close to hers. The man had enough sex appeal to light up a city, she thought. Look at the way he turned her on!
She dropped her purse and her shopping bags on the sofa, called, “Dad? Hey, Dad, I'm home,” on her way into the kitchen to get a bottle of water.
“The better to cool off with, my dear,” she murmured, though she wasn't sure she wanted to cool off. What she wanted was to be in Rane's arms again, to revel in his kisses, to hear his voice whispering in her ear, though she couldn't now recall what he had said. But it didn't matter. He wanted her. There was no doubt about that. And she wanted him.
Returning to the living room, she paused in the doorway. The lights were off, but the satellite screen was on, so where was her father? It wasn't like him to go to bed without turning off the screen. Saving energy had always been one of his quirks.
She glanced around, a sudden feeling of unease skating down her spine. Murmuring, “I don't like this,” she switched on the lights.
Something was differentâ¦. She moved through the room. The books on the bookshelf had been moved, the drawers in the small desk that had been her mother's were open. The trio of candles on the coffee table had been knocked over. Her father's favorite coffee cup lay on the floor surrounded by a dark stain.
She stood in the middle of the room. Should she leave? What if the intruder was still on the premises? Goose bumps prickled along her skin. “Dad?”
When there was still no answer, she picked up one of the heavy candlesticks. She couldn't leave. Her dad might still be in the house, hurt, unable to answer.
Tension coiled deep within her as she walked down the hall to her father's bedroom. The door was open. The lights were off. In the light from the hallway, she could see that his bed was empty.
Chilled, she stepped into the room. “Dad?”
Looking closer, she saw his wheelchair lying on its side by the bathroom door. Fear's icy hand clamped Savanah's insides. Where was her father? Why didn't he answer? Her fingertips tightened on the candlestick as she hurried around the foot of the bed, her eyes focused on the bathroom door.
She looked down when her foot hit something soft, felt her heart go cold when she saw her father sprawled facedown on the floor.
“Dad!” Tossing the candlestick on the bed, she switched on the bedside lamp. “Dad?”
Kneeling, she turned him over, gasped in horror at what she saw. His face was as pale as paper, his lips were blue, his eyes sunken. Had he had a heart attack? She placed her hand on his heart. Was he breathing? She couldn't feel a heartbeat.
She had to call 9-1-1, had to get help. He couldn't be dead. She was reaching for the phone when his fingers curled around her arm.
“I'm here, Dad. Hang on.”
“Listenâ¦things you need to knowâ¦”
“Later, Dad, I need to callâ¦”
“Listen! Things about meâ¦your motherâ¦”
Savanah stared down at her father as he struggled for breath. What was he trying to say? Whatever it was, it would have to wait. He needed help and he needed it now. “You can tell me later.”
“No time.” His hand tightened on her arm in a viselike grip. “My deskâ¦envelopeâ¦” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Envelopeâ¦behindâ¦bottom drawerâ¦for you.”
“Yes, whateverâ¦” It wasn't important, not now, when he was growing paler, weaker, by the moment. A prayer rose in her mind. Only one word,
Please, please, please
repeated over and over again. She grabbed his cell phone from the bedside table. “I need to callâ¦”
“Too lateâ¦” His fingers dug into her flesh. “Beâ¦careful.”
“Dad, please, just hang onâ¦. I can't lose you, too.”
“Loveâ¦youâ¦” He looked up at her, a faint smile on his lips, and then, with a sigh, his hand fell away from her arm, the light went out of his eyes, and he was gone.
“Dad? Dad! No, please, no.” Gathering him into her arms, she rocked back and forth, her tears dripping onto his face.
Guilt speared her heart. She had hardly spent any time with him in the last few weeks, what with spending her days at work and her nights with Rane.
If only she had come home earlier, or called to see how he was. Time lost all meaning as she sat there cradling her father's body.
She held him until her legs cramped. Rising, she went into the bathroom and washed her hands and face. Returning to the bedroom, she pulled a blanket from the bed and covered him, only then noticing that someone had gone through his dresser and the drawer on his nightstand.
Someone had broken into the house. Who? And why? Had her father surprised the culprit in the act? Choking back her tears, she went into the living room and called the police. While waiting for their arrival, she went through the rest of the house. Every drawer had been ransacked, every bookshelf had been searched, but as far as she could tell, nothing had been taken. What had the robber hoped to find? There was no sign of forced entry, no broken windows. Had her father been acquainted with the robber? Knowing someone had gone through her personal belongings left her feeling violated.
The police arrived a short time later. Savanah answered their questions, a growing sense of numbness enveloping her as a crime team arrived to dust for fingerprints. A policewoman escorted her out onto the front porch and informed her that she would have to stay outside until the police finished their investigation.
Savanah glanced toward the front door. Her father was still in there; she needed to be with him. “How long will that take?”
“We could be finished here in a few hours, or a few days. I really couldn't say. Do you have somewhere you can go? Is there anyone you can call?”
“Don't leave town,” the policewoman said. “And I'll need a number where we can reach you.”
Savanah gave the woman her cell phone number.
“I'm sorry for your loss,” the policewoman said before going back into the house.
Savanah stood there a moment, and then she dialed Rane's number.
He answered on the first ring, almost as if he had been waiting for her call, and promised he would be right over. He arrived less than two minutes later. In a distant part of her mind, Savanah wondered how he had gotten clear across town so fast.
Rane caught the mingled odors of blood and death the minute he approached the house, and beneath it, the scent of Vampire. He drew in a deep breath. The Vampire's scent was unfamiliar, but one he wouldn't forget.
Rane took one look at Savanah's tear-streaked face and drew her into his arms. “What happened?”
He stroked her back lightly as she explained, her voice a dull monotone. When she fell silent, he said, “You can't stay here.”
“That's what the police said.”
Taking her by the hand, he led her into the house and spoke to the policewoman, who allowed Savanah to go upstairs and pack an overnight bag.
“Ready?” Rane asked when Savanah came down the stairs, a small suitcase in one hand, her handbag in the other.
She stared at him out of grief-stricken eyes.
“Where are your keys?”
She pulled them from her purse and handed them to him, then followed him out of the house. He unlocked her car door and tossed her suitcase into the backseat.
She didn't ask him where his car was, and for that, Rane was grateful, since he hadn't driven to her house.
“Savanah, do you want to go to my place or a hotel?”
“I don't care.”
He dragged a hand over his jaw. As tempted as he was to take her home with him, a hotel seemed the wiser choice. Having her in his room, in his bedâ¦He shook his head. Definitely not a good idea.
The Kelton Inn was located at the end of town. If it wasn't for the adjoining restaurant, the place would probably have gone bankrupt years ago. Rane asked for the best room the hotel had to offer. He signed the register with an old alias; then, lifting Savanah into his arms, he carried her and her overnight case up the stairs, all too aware of the hotel clerk's curious gaze on his back.
The room was spacious and well-appointed, although the furnishings were sorely out-of-date. Dropping Savanah's bag on the floor beside the sofa, Rane sat down, cradling Savanah in his arms.
For a time she just sat there, stiff and unmoving, and then the tears came, slowly at first, then building in intensity as the full impact of her father's death washed over her. Knowing the healing power of human tears, Rane said little. He simply held her, one hand lightly stroking her back, wondering all the while if the Vampire he had scented had killed her father and if so, why, and if it had anything to do with Savanah's mother being a hunter. Savanah had said the house had been ransacked. What had the Vampire been searching for, and had it been found?
After a time, Savanah's tears subsided and she rested in his arms, her body limp.
Blinking back her tears, she looked up at Rane. “I'll miss him so,” she murmured, her voice little more than a whisper.
“Of course you will.”
“I can't imagine my life without him. He was always so good to me, so patient.” She sniffed. “He tried to be both father and mother to me. It wasn't easy for him, but he did it. He helped me with my homework, he went with me to buy my first prom dress, he held me in his arms after I broke up with my first boyfriend.” She sniffed again. “When I got older, we took care of each other. And now he's goneâ¦. Oh, Rane, what am I going to do?”
“You'll grieve a while,” he said, brushing a lock of hair from her cheek, “and you'll miss him, but, with time, the pain will get a little easier to bear. You'll get on with your life, and eventually the hurt will go away and you'll be able to remember the good times without crying.”
“You sound like you're speaking from experience?”
“In a way.” He hadn't buried anyone he loved, but he had grieved when he cut himself off from all contact with his family.
“Thank you for coming over.”
“I'll always be here if you need me.”
She blinked at him. That sounded like a commitment, which was odd, since they had only known each other a few weeks. Still, there were times, like now, when it seemed as if she had known him her whole life.
Rane brushed a kiss across her cheek, and tasted the salt of her tears. “I should go so you can get some sleep,” he said, though he didn't intend to go far. Until he discovered otherwise, he would assume that one of the Undead had killed her father. It would be an easy thing for him to find out. A quick trip to the morgue after Savanah was asleep would tell him everything he needed to know. But whether the killer was mortal or Vampire, Rane intended to stay with Savanah tonight and every night until he was certain that whoever had killed her father hadn't also marked her for death.
“I don't want to be alone tonight,” Savanah said, her voice little more than a whisper. “Will you stay with me?”
“Sure, darlin', if that's what you want. Go brush your teeth and put on your nightgown and call me when you're done.” He winked at her. “And I'll come and tuck you in.”
Blinking back a fresh wave of tears, she slid off his lap. Retrieving her overnight case and her handbag, she went into the bedroom and closed the door. She unpacked her nightie, her robe and her toothbrush, and then went into the bathroom.
Were the police still at her house, searching for clues? Would they be able to gather enough evidence to find and arrest whoever had killed her father? The culprit had ransacked the house from top to bottom, but as near as she could tell, nothing was missing. What had the intruder been looking for?
With a shake of her head, she splashed cold water on her face, then brushed her teeth. She had packed the most modest nightie she owned, a plain white cotton gown that fell to midcalf. She slipped it on and then brushed out her hair. Going into the bedroom, she crawled under the covers, and then she called Rane.
He appeared in the doorway as if by magic. She knew it was only her imagination, but his presence seemed to fill the room.
“They were looking for something,” Savanah said. “Whoever killed him was looking for something.”
“Any idea what it was?”
“No. We don't keep anything valuable in the house.” She smiled faintly. “Not that we have anything of value to anyone else. Oh, Rane, they killed him for nothing.”