“An exciting vampire romance with a slew of fascinating paranormal characters—the good, the bad, and the unequivocally evil” from the bestselling author (Fresh Fiction).
“I see a man. He is old. Very old. He will come into your life in a moment of danger. He will watch over you and protect you.” The gypsy’s hand gripped Tessa’s tighter. “He will bring you death,” she whispered, her voice like the rustle of dry leaves. “And life.”
Ten years later, when Andrei Dinescu saves Tessa from a vicious attacker, she has no idea that the handsome stranger the fortune teller predicted is not a hunter but a seven-hundred-year-old vampire. Darkly powerful, unbelievably compelling, he is obviously pursuing Tessa, but is it her love he’s after or her blood?
Praise for the writing of Amanda Ashley
“A master of her craft.” —Maggie Shayne, New York Times–bestselling author
“A classic vampire tale of sensual, spine-tingling suspense.” —Christine Feehan, #1 New York Times–bestselling author“Sexy, fast-paced, gritty, this is Amanda Ashley at her best! A must read!” —Ronda Thompson, New York Times–bestselling author
Release date: April 25, 2017
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 400
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
A Fire in the Blood
Vampires. Tessa Blackburn shook her head as she scanned the front page of the Cutter’s Corner Gazette.
It was hard to remember how it all started. The first hint of trouble had been a brief story on one of the major news networks. At the time, it hadn’t made much of an impression on the citizens of Cutter’s Corner, since none of the victims had been residents of the town. Gradually, as stories of people disappearing closer to home, of bodies drained of blood, appeared in the headlines more and more often, the people of Cutter’s Corner began to pay attention. It soon became the main topic of conversation at the bank where Tessa worked. Speculation appeared in local blogs, on Facebook and Twitter. Such postings were frequently accompanied by lurid photos of the deceased and inappropriate comments.
At first, no one in town wanted to say the word out loud, but then, one reporter on a popular cable channel boldly stated that Cutter’s Corner had a vampire problem.
Once the word was out in the open, people really began to sit up and take notice.
Had it only been six months ago that the word had first appeared on the front page of the Gazette in boldfaced type? At the time, Tessa’s immediate reaction had been Are they kidding? There were no such things as vampires. Everybody knew that. Vampires were nothing but a myth, scary stories told to frighten children and gullible adults. A staple of old TV shows and spooky tours in New Orleans. Vampires were the villains—and sometimes the heroes—of numerous movies and books. They sold cereal, and taught kids how to count on Sesame Street. But real? No way!
Since then, every newspaper and magazine across the country—both print and digital—carried warnings for the public to stay inside after dark, and to never, ever invite a stranger into your home. And at least once a week, the news sources were plastered with a list of the various ways to identify a vampire, as well as the quickest and most efficient ways to destroy them.
Thus far, Tessa counted herself fortunate that, if the creatures did indeed exist, she hadn’t run across one. At least, she was pretty sure she hadn’t. After all, she was still alive.
No one knew how many vampires were in Cutter’s Corner, what had drawn them to the city, or where they slept during the day.
The city council had issued a bounty of one thousand dollars in gold for every vampire destroyed, so it wasn’t surprising that the population of Cutter’s Corner had doubled in the last few months as self-proclaimed vampire hunters and greedy tourists armed with wooden stakes and bottles of holy water flocked into town, determined to rid Cutter’s Corner of its infestation while collecting a tidy reward.
“Infestation,” Tessa muttered. As if the creatures were no more dangerous than a colony of ants.
She turned to the last page of the Gazette and, sure enough, there were the familiar lists.
“What if the vampire’s Jewish?” Tessa mused aloud. “Or Hindu? Or an atheist?”
With a shake of her head, she folded the paper and tossed it on the table, then lifted a hand to her neck, her fingers sliding over the thick silver chain she had taken to wearing whenever she left the house. It was a recent acquisition. Even though she doubted anything would repel a genuine vampire, if such creatures really existed, she had decided to err on the side of caution. The chain was pretty and if it wasn’t effective, well, she still liked it. She’d considered getting a wooden stake, thinking it might come in handy if she could bring herself to use it. Had she been Catholic, she would have considered carrying a vial of holy water, as well.
Glancing at her watch, she quickly downed the last of her coffee, grabbed her handbag and keys, and headed out the door.
Vampires or no, she was a working girl who couldn’t afford to be late. Mr. Ambrose was pretty easygoing, as bosses went, but he insisted on punctuality from his employees.
Tessa smiled as Jileen Hix plopped down in the chair across from hers in the cafeteria. They had started work at Milo and Max Savings and Loan on the same day and had quickly become friends. Tessa worked in the loan department; Jileen was a teller. They made an odd pair—Tessa standing five foot five and slender with long, blond hair and dark brown eyes; Jileen shorter and plumper, with spiked, black hair and bright blue eyes.
In spite of their physical differences, they shared a love for Starbucks’s Cinnamon Dolce Lattes, strawberry shortcake, root beer floats made with chocolate ice cream, Lady Antebellum, Steven Wright, and anything starring Chris Hemsworth. Between them, they had seen Thor at least fifteen times. They met for lunch almost every day, sometimes eating in the company cafeteria, sometimes going out.
“Have you seen the latest headlines?” Jileen asked, as she sprinkled lemon juice on her salad.
“No, and I’m not sure I want to.”
“Mrs. Kowalski is the latest victim.”
Tessa’s heart sank. Mrs. Kowalski had been the first person Tessa had met when she moved to town three years ago. “Why would anyone want to kill her? I mean, she had to be eighty if she was a day.”
“I know,” Jileen said. “She was always so sweet to everyone. Even Eddie Sykes, and you know what a bully he is.”
Tessa nodded. “Are they sure it was a vampire that killed her?”
“Yes. According to the article in the paper, she had bite marks on her neck and—”
“I don’t want to hear any more,” Tessa said, adding a pack of sugar substitute to her iced tea.
“I guess it’s not a very good topic for lunch, is it?”
“No.” Tessa pushed her turkey sandwich away, her appetite gone. “This is a small town. There can’t be that many vampires running around or they’d be bumping into each other. And what about all those hunters? There must be ten or twenty of them. As far as I can tell, most of them spend their time at Hanson’s Tavern, guzzling beer and swapping stories that can’t possibly be true.”
“I met one of them here at the bank yesterday,” Jileen said. “He was really cute.”
Tessa shook her head. She loved Jileen like a sister, but the girl fell in love with a new guy every week. Last week, it had been the FedEx deliveryman. The week before, it had been the mechanic who worked on her Mustang.
Glancing at her watch, Tessa said, “Listen, I have to go. I have a client due in about five minutes. I’ll see you later.”
One thing Tessa loved about living in a small town was that, aside from knowing almost everyone, she could walk to work. But lately, she’d had the eerie sensation of being watched. And tonight, walking home alone in the dark, she wished she had taken her car.
She assured herself there was nothing to worry about. How could there be, with all the hunters stalking the streets? But the constant talk of vampires left her feeling vulnerable. She was sure there was a vampire lurking behind every tree or watching her from the shadows. She told herself she was just being foolish, that she needed to stop reading the newspapers and blogs, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being followed.
She glanced over her shoulder time and again, certain someone was creeping up behind her, but when she looked, there was no one there. No suspicious footsteps.
Just that creepy feeling.
Of course, it was October and every house she passed was decorated with ghouls and goblins, witches and tombstones. But that didn’t account for all the other times she had been sure someone was following her.
Nearing home, Tessa quickened her pace. Then, feeling foolish, she ran the last two blocks. Heart pounding, she raced up the stairs to her apartment, thrust the key into the lock, and hurried inside. Slamming the door shut behind her, she shot the bolt home, then stood there, gasping for breath and feeling utterly ridiculous for letting her imagination get the best of her.
The vampire paused in the shadows outside the woman’s house. The word was out, spread by a fledgling who had heard it from a gypsy fortune-teller: There was a woman in Cutter’s Corner whose blood made new vampires stronger—something every fledgling would kill for.
His nostrils filled with the tantalizing scent of her blood.
He had missed his chance at her tonight.
He would not miss tomorrow.
Tessa glanced at the neatly cut grass. At the tall pines in the distance. At the wreaths of flowers surrounding the graveside. At the fluffy white clouds sailing like ships across the sky-blue ocean. Everywhere but at the pale blue casket covered with a spray of red roses. She hated funerals. Granted, she hadn’t been to many, and the ones she had attended had been for people who had been sick with no hope of recovery and for whom death had probably been a blessing. But Mrs. Kowalski hadn’t been ill or infirm. She had been the town librarian, and one of Tessa’s favorite people. When Tessa first moved to Cutter’s Corner, Mrs. Kowalski had made her feel welcome. In spite of her years, Mrs. Kowalski had been filled with a zest for life. She hadn’t deserved to die in such a horrible way.
Of course, neither had Mr. Holbrook, the town recluse, who had been Cutter’s Corner’s first victim. Or Miss Garcia, who had taught third grade. Or the two transients—one who had been found in a ditch alongside the freeway, the other in a Dumpster. Five mysterious deaths in as many months. And yet, if what the papers said was true, maybe not so mysterious.
When Jileen nudged her, Tessa looked up, startled from her morbid thoughts. “Let’s go,” Jileen said quietly. “It’s over.”
Tessa glanced at Mrs. Kowalski’s family—her husband, Joe; their three daughters and seven grandchildren. “In a minute.” Sighing, she made her way toward them.
It wasn’t fair, she thought. Mr. Holbrook had been a widower who rarely left his house. Miss Garcia had been an old maid. Sure, Mr. Holbrook and Miss Garcia had had friends who would miss them, but Mrs. Kowalski had a husband and grown children who loved her, grandchildren who needed their grandmother.
After offering her condolences to Mrs. Kowalski’s husband and children, Tessa headed for home. It was Saturday, the day she set aside to clean her apartment, do her laundry, wash her car. She usually had her chores done by early afternoon, but the funeral had thrown her off schedule.
It didn’t take long to dust and vacuum her small apartment. After a late lunch, she pulled the sheets from her bed, then gathered up the rest of her laundry and drove to the Laundromat. As soon as she got enough money saved, she was moving to a larger place, one that provided washers and dryers on the premises. Or, better yet, inside every unit.
She sorted the lights from the darks, poured in soap and fabric softener, and settled down on one of the hard plastic chairs. E-reader in hand, Tessa soon lost herself in one of the mystery novels she had downloaded earlier in the week.
By the time her clothes were washed, dried, and folded, and she had stopped at the gas station to fill up her gas tank, night had fallen.
Tessa paused as she lifted the laundry basket out of the trunk. Mouth dry, she glanced around the building’s dimly lit parking lot. She felt it again, that same shivery sense that she was being watched. She told herself it was only her overactive imagination, but the creepy feeling remained.
Someone was watching her.
She slammed the trunk lid down, took a firm hold on the basket, and ran for the outside stairs that led to the second floor. If it was her imagination, she would laugh about it when she was safely inside, sipping a cup of hot tea. If it wasn’t . . .
She had just reached the stairway when a hand closed over her shoulder.
Tessa shrieked, the basket falling from her hands, clothes scattering around her feet, when her attacker slammed her against the side of the building.
She tried to scream, but fear clogged her throat when she looked into his eyes—eyes that burned as bright and red as the fires of hell.
Fight! Her mind screamed at her. You’ve got to fight!
But she couldn’t move, couldn’t look away from those mesmerizing devil-red eyes.
Her attacker smiled, revealing a pair of very sharp, very white, finely pointed fangs.
Vampire! The word rang like thunder in her mind. I’m dead.
She was trying to accept the fact that her life was over when, suddenly, the vampire was no longer holding her, but sprawled facedown at her feet, a thick wooden stake protruding from its back.
Tessa slumped against the wall, one hand at her throat, unable to take her gaze from the dead vampire.
“Are you all right?”
Her rescuer’s voice, low and oddly compelling, reminded her that she wasn’t alone.
Tessa looked up slowly, a shiver skating down her spine. Like the vampire, this man was dressed all in black. Was he here to help, she wondered morbidly, or was he another vampire, come to finish what the dead one had started?
“Are you all right?” he asked again.
When she didn’t answer, he took a step toward her, stopped when she cringed against the wall.
“I mean you no harm.” His voice moved over her like dark velvet, warm and comforting. “You’re safe now.”
Safe? She felt a hysterical bubble of laughter rise in her throat. Safe, with a dead vampire at her feet and a stranger blocking the stairway?
He lifted one brow. “Can you speak?”
She blinked at him, and then she did laugh. Laughed until tears ran down her cheeks.
The stranger muttered something in a language Tessa didn’t understand and then, between one breath and the next, he drew her into his arms. She struggled at first but then, realizing he truly didn’t intend to hurt her, she sagged against him, her whole body trembling in the aftermath of the attack.
Gradually, she grew aware of him, of the strength of his arms around her, of the odd scent that clung to him. She spent a moment trying to determine what it was, but other sensations flooded her senses. The cloth of his jacket was soft beneath her cheek, probably expensive. He was tall, his chest solid as granite, yet his hand was gentle—almost a caress—as he stroked her back.
He held her until her trembling ceased. When her tears subsided, he offered her his handkerchief—fine linen embroidered with the initials A. D. It seemed a shame to use it, she thought as she dried her eyes and blew her nose.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Just a concerned citizen,” he replied, taking a step away from her. “Good evening.”
A dozen questions popped into Tessa’s mind, but he was already walking away. She stooped to gather her laundry and when she looked up again, he was out of sight.
Andrei Dinescu hovered outside the woman’s living room window, shamelessly eavesdropping. She had notified the police earlier. Two officers had responded twenty minutes later. Now Andrei listened intently as she explained, slowly and calmly, what had happened.
The taller of the two cops—his name tag identified him as Officer Braxton—took notes while the other—Officer Gaines—asked questions, most of which were cut and dried where the dead vampire was concerned. They were, however, far too interested in learning about the man who had saved her.
The woman—Tessa—shook her head. “I didn’t get his name,” she said, glancing from one officer to the other. “I never saw him before.”
“And he just showed up, staked the vampire, and left?” the shorter cop asked, his tone blatantly skeptical.
“You’re sure you’ve never seen him before?”
“Of course I’m sure,” she snapped. “What difference does it make?”
The cops exchanged glances.
“What aren’t you telling me?” she asked.
The tall policeman shut his notebook. “Thank you for your help, Miss Blackburn.”
She rose when the officers moved toward the door. “He was just a hunter, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?”
“Good night, ma’am,” Officer Gaines said. “In the future, you might want to make sure you’re inside behind locked doors before dark.”
She stared after them a moment, then double-locked the door.
Andrei drifted down to the sidewalk. Hands shoved into his pants’ pockets, he strolled down the street. What was there about this woman that attracted vampires from all over the country into his city? But for his timely intervention on several occasions, she would have been dead weeks ago.
Perhaps in a day or two he would arrange to meet her, up close and personal, and see if he could discover her allure.
“A vampire attacked you?” Jileen stared at Tessa in disbelief. “Saturday night? At your place? Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious. Why on earth would I make up such a story?”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
Tessa shook her head. She had spent most of Sunday trying not to think about what had happened. Or about the man who had saved her from almost certain death. “I know I should have called, but I just didn’t want to talk about it, you know? It was still too fresh in my mind.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“No, just scared me half to death.”
Jileen put her sandwich aside and laid her hand on Tessa’s arm. “You are so lucky to be alive. How did you get away?”
“I didn’t. Some man I’ve never seen before showed up out of nowhere and drove a stake through its heart.” Tessa shuddered at the memory. “It was . . .” She shook her head, unable to find the words to describe the shock. The horror.
“Girlfriend, I am so glad you’re okay. I . . . what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s him,” Tessa whispered as her rescuer entered the café. “He’s here.”
“The man who saved me.”
“Really?” Jileen glanced over her shoulder. “Where?”
“That tall, dark-haired man. Over there, by the door.”
“He saved you? Geez, I hope you got his name and phone number. He’s gorgeous.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Tessa murmured. But she was noticing now. As Jileen had said, he was drop-dead gorgeous. Tall, and again clad all in black—silk shirt, slacks, and boots—he had long, ebony hair, dark eyes, a blade of a nose, sensuous lips, a strong jaw.
He inclined his head in her direction and then started toward her.
“He’s coming over!” Tessa exclaimed. “What do you think he wants?”
“I don’t know,” Jileen said. “Just be sure to introduce me.”
The stranger smiled at Tessa. “You’re well?” he asked. “No ill effects from your ordeal?”
“I’m fine, thanks to you,” Tessa replied with a tentative smile. “This is my friend Jileen. Jileen, this is . . . I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
“Andrei,” he said with a bow. “Andrei Dinescu.”
“It’s very nice to meet you,” Jileen said. “Won’t you join us?”
“Thank you.” In a single fluid movement, he pulled out a chair and lowered himself onto it. “So, what are you lovely ladies up to this afternoon?”
“Taking a long lunch,” Jileen answered, smiling expansively.
“Working girls?” he asked.
“Not that kind,” Jileen said, grinning.
Tessa glared at her friend.
“What is it you do, Mr. Dinescu?” Jileen leaned forward, allowing him a glimpse of her generous cleavage.
“Andrei, please. I collect and sell antiques.”
“Really? I love antiques,” Jileen said.
“You must come by my shop sometime,” he said, but he was looking at Tessa.
“Yes, well,” Jileen muttered, sitting back in her chair. “I think I’ll just go on back to work. See you later, Tess. Mr. Dinescu.”
He nodded, his gaze still on Tessa. “Did you tell your friend what happened Saturday night?”
“Of course. I tell her everything.”
His gaze moved over her. “Are you sure he didn’t hurt you?”
“No harm done, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be all right again. I hate to think what would have happened if you hadn’t come along when you did.”
He made a vague gesture with his hand. “I’m glad I was there.”
Tessa nodded, her gaze trapped by his dark one, by the mellifluous tone of his voice. By the sheer beauty of the man.
Suddenly flustered, she reached for her drink. To her chagrin, she knocked the glass over, spilling iced tea across the table and into his lap. “Oh! I’m so sorry!”
“It’s all right,” he said, flashing a heart-stopping smile. “Unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, I won’t melt.”
Tessa handed him several napkins, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment at acting like such a klutz in front of the man who had saved her life. “I’ll be glad to pay to have your trousers cleaned.”
“No need. But there is something you can do for me.”
“Of course. Anything.”
“Go out with me Friday night.”
She blinked at him. The man had saved her life and she was grateful, but he was a stranger. Granted, an extraordinarily handsome stranger, but still . . . “I’m sorry, but . . .”
He held up one hand, putting a stop to her protest. “I understand. We’ve only just met. Maybe we could double-date with your friend? Or I could meet you somewhere, say, at the movies?”
“I don’t know . . . I don’t think I want to be out after dark again anytime soon.”
He nodded. “I understand. Perhaps a matinee on Saturday? I’ll even spring for popcorn.”
“You’re very persistent.”
He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “You have no idea.”
“All right. I’ll meet you at the Orpheum at two o’clock.” The movie should be over no later than four thirty, giving her plenty of time to get home before dark.
Pushing away from the table, he took her hand in his and kissed it. “Until then, dragostea mea.” With a slight bow, he turned and headed for the door.
Her skin felt hot, tingly, where his lips had touched her.
Watching him walk away, Tessa couldn’t help noticing that he looked just as hot from the back as he did from the front.
Hands shoved into his pockets, his thoughts turned inward, Andrei strolled slowly down the street, the distinctive scent of Tessa’s blood lingering in his nostrils. Never in his seven hundred years had he encountered anything like it. Had he been newly turned and out of control, he would likely have dragged her into the nearest alley and drained her dry. Hell, as old as he was, it was still a temptation.
The question was, why did her blood smell differently from that of other humans? Each blood type had its own unique taste and smell, altered only by the individual’s dining habits and addictions. But Tessa . . . her scent was like . . . like . . . Andrei shook his head. He had nothing to compare it with.
But one thing he did know: He had to taste her, at least once.
The thought of blood fired his hunger. Making an abrupt change in direction, he headed for his favorite goth hangout on the southern edge of the city.
The Crypt, built of gray stone inside and out, pandered to those who were fascinated by the undead or by death itself. Movie posters depicting Dracula in all his incarnations lined the walls. An antique, glass-sided hearse—complete with a stuffed horse and a mannequin attired in. . .
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