Sexy vampires, dangerous devotion, unparalleled romance--no one does desire after dark like bestselling author Amanda Ashley. Now, in her enthralling new novel, she explores a passion as smoldering as it is risky... Vicki Cavendish knows she should be careful. After all, there's a killer loose in town--one who drains women of blood, women with red hair and green eyes just like her. She knows she should tell police about the dark, gorgeous man who comes into the diner every night, the one who makes her feel a longing she's never felt before. The last thing she should do is invite the beautiful stranger into her house... Cursed to an eternity of darkness, Antonio Battista has wandered the earth, satisfying his hunger with countless women, letting none find a place in his heart. But Victoria Cavendish is different. Finally, he has found a woman to love, a woman who accepts him for what he is--a woman who wants him as much as he wants her...which is why he should leave. But Antonio is a vampire, not a saint. What is his, he'll fight to keep and protect. And Victoria Cavendish needs protecting...from the remorseless enemy who would make her his prey...and from Antonio's own uncontrollable hunger...
Release date: February 1, 2006
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 385
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Desire After Dark
Tom Duncan stared down at the body laid out in the satin-lined coffin. Edward Ramsey’s body. Once, Ramsey had not only been Duncan’s best friend, but he had also been the best vampire hunter in the business. Fearless. Relentless. But now Edward Ramsey was one of the Undead. And as such, he was filth, an aberration.
As such, he had to be destroyed.
Murmuring, “Sorry, old buddy,” Duncan placed the sharp point of a hawthorn stake over Ramsey’s heart.
He lifted the hammer, prepared to strike the blow that would destroy the monster his friend had become, when Ramsey’s eyes flew open. Hissing, his eyes blazing like the fires of hell, Ramsey exploded out of the coffin, his fangs bared, his bony fingers curved like claws.
Duncan howled with outrage as Ramsey wrestled him to the ground, screaming with terror as Ramsey’s fangs pierced his skin, sinking deep into his throat….
Tom Duncan bolted upright in bed, the sound of his own cries echoing in his ears.
Dammit! Sometimes it just didn’t pay to go to bed at night.
Rising, he padded barefooted into the hotel room’s tiny kitchen, switched on the light, and pulled a bottle of water from the fridge. After uncapping the container, he took a long drink.
Damn, he hated that dream.
Returning to the bedroom, he pulled on a pair of gray sweatpants and a black T-shirt, slipped his feet into a pair of sandals, grabbed a jacket, and left the hotel.
Outside, he took several deep breaths, chasing the last vestiges of the nightmare from his mind. Feeling somewhat better, he strolled down the street, enjoying the quiet of the night. It was peaceful, so peaceful. In spite of the chill in the air, he passed a number of people on the street and nodded at a group of teenagers gathered in front of a bowling alley. He waved to an elderly couple sitting side by side on a swing in their front yard. They looked to be in their late sixties or early seventies, and he wondered how long they had been married and how many kids and grandkids they had.
With a shake of his head, he rounded the corner. What the devil was the matter with him, wondering about such mundane things? Once he had decided to be a vampire hunter, he had put all thought of marriage and kids out of his mind. Few vampire hunters had families. A wife and children could too easily be taken hostage or used for revenge by an angry vampire. He had made his decision to remain single and he had never regretted it. He didn’t know why he was thinking of it now. Maybe he was just getting maudlin in his old age.
He grunted softly. Thirty-five wasn’t usually considered old, but in his line of work, it was ancient. But he didn’t want to think of that, not now. He was taking a much-needed vacation and the last thing he wanted to think about was vampires. But he couldn’t help it, not after the last hunt. Not after learning that the man he had once hunted with, a man he had considered to be his closest friend, was now a vampire himself.
Duncan shook his head. Out of all the people he knew, Edward Ramsey was the last person Duncan would ever have suspected of being a vampire. Of course, accepting the Dark Gift hadn’t been Edward’s choice. It had been thrust upon him by one of the Undead. But Edward had finally found a way to live with his new lifestyle and now he was married to another vampire and they seemed very happy together.
Duncan grunted softly. Maybe that was what had him feeling so lost, so alone. Ramsey had been his only close friend. Surprisingly, they were still friends but with vastly different lifestyles. It was still hard to believe that he had a friend who was a vampire. Several friends, if he counted Grigori and Marisa Chiavari and Ramsey’s wife, Kelly. The five of them had survived an incredible battle against one of the most powerful vampires that had ever lived. After the battle, Duncan had shared his blood with Ramsey. Looking back, he still couldn’t believe he had done such a thing, but how could he have refused Marisa? She had still been a mortal then and he had just finished congratulating her because, when all was said and done, it had been Marisa who destroyed Khira.
“You did it,” he’d said, grinning. “By damn, you did it!”
“We all did it,” Marisa had murmured. “And now I need you to do something.”
“Sure, kid. I’ll dispose of all this carrion, trust me.” His gesture had included the twisted bodies.
“Not that,” Marisa said.
“Just tell me what you want,” Duncan had said. “And consider it done.”
“Ramsey needs to feed.”
Duncan had stared at her. “What?”
“He needs blood to replace what he’s giving Kelly. He’s not strong enough to hunt.”
“You want me to…” Duncan had looked at Ramsey, then back at Marisa. “This is carrying friendship a little too far, don’t you think?”
“No,” Marisa had said, her voice calm.
“Why can’t you do it?” Duncan had glanced at Grigori. “You’re used to it.”
“Yes,” she had agreed calmly. “I am. But Grigori needs to feed, too. You have no idea what it cost him to hold Khira at bay until I could…could…”
“Okay, okay, you convinced me,” Duncan had grumbled. He had picked up a vial of holy water as he moved toward the couch.
Ramsey had opened his eyes as Duncan approached. Edward’s eyes had darkened with alarm and Grigori had tensed, ready to spring to Edward’s defense if necessary.
“Relax,” Duncan had said. “A little insurance, that’s all. Friend or no friend, you aren’t turning me into a damned bloodsucker.”
Looking back, he remembered sitting down on the sofa and wondering if he was making the worst mistake of his life. In spite of all they had shared, in spite of the years they had hunted together, it made Duncan a little sad to realize there would always be that little part of himself that no longer trusted his best friend.
A few weeks after they had dispatched Khira, Edward and Kelly had approached him. Duncan had listened to their plan with wry amusement. Incredible as it seemed, Edward had decided to open a school to train vampire hunters and he wanted Duncan to be in charge. Duncan had given it some serious consideration but, in the end, he had turned the offer down. He didn’t want to teach a bunch of green kids how to hunt vampires, he wanted to hunt them himself. He had helped Edward find another hunter, one who had been thinking about retiring from the hunt. John Randolph was a good man and Duncan knew he’d do a good job. Randolph had told Duncan that when he tired of the hunt, he would be welcome at the school.
With a sigh, Duncan went back to the hotel and packed his gear, then checked out of the hotel. Opening the trunk, he took a quick inventory of his kit: hammer and stakes, a mirror, a few strings of garlic, a half a dozen bottles of holy water, a saw and a crowbar, a flashlight, and a snub-nosed .38. He closed the trunk, then unlocked the door of his beat-up old Chevy Camaro and slid behind the wheel.
“Heigh-ho, Silver, away,” he muttered with a wry grin. The bad guy, or bad gal in this case, had been defeated and destroyed. Good had once again triumphed over evil.
It was time to move on.
Pear Blossom Creek was just a small Midwestern town, hardly more than a wide spot in the road. No one famous had ever been born there, or even spent the night. They had one fire truck and four policemen, two for the day shift and two who worked nights. Most of the residents were farmers, and everybody in town knew everybody else. It was a place where nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. Nothing, that is, until the stranger came to town.
He arrived on a dark and decidedly stormy Friday night in early-October. The storm was a real gully washer, the old-timers were quick to say, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in more than a hundred years. A bad omen, some predicted.
Victoria Lynn Cavendish didn’t put much stock in anything the over-seventy-five crowd had to say but she had to admit that in all her twenty-two years, she had never seen or heard a storm like the one pounding on the hammered tin roof of Ozzie’s Diner. Nor had she ever seen a man quite like the one sitting at the booth in the far corner, she thought as she approached him.
He was dark, he was, and it wasn’t just his clothing or his coloring. It was like he was a part of the darkness itself, a feeling that was reinforced when she looked into his eyes. Deep blue eyes that seemed as fathomless as Hellfire Hollow, as endless as eternity. His hair was long and straight and black as a raven’s wing, the perfect complement to his straight black brows and long, thick eyelashes that would have looked feminine on any other man. But not on this man. His countenance was darkly beautiful and without blemish, in the way that Satan might appear beautiful as he carefully seduced you down the paths of sin. Looking at the stranger, she thought it might be worth the journey, perilous though it would undoubtedly be to both body and soul.
He remained unmoving under her perusal, a knowing smile curving his perfectly sculpted, sensuous lips.
With an effort, Vicki drew her gaze from his. “What can I get you, mister?” she asked, her pencil poised over her pad.
“What would you recommend?” His voice was low, almost mesmerizing, and strangely intimate, as if he knew her innermost secrets. As if he alone possessed the power to grant her every wish, fulfill her every desire.
She shook off her fanciful notions. He wasn’t the devil. He was just a man. “The meat loaf’s not bad.” It wasn’t really good, either, but she couldn’t tell a customer that.
“Very well, I will have the meat loaf.”
“You want mashed potatoes and gravy with that, or French fries?”
“Either one will be fine.”
“And to drink?”
“Would you by chance have any red wine?”
Victoria stared at him. She had worked at the diner for almost four years and in all that time, no one had ever asked for wine, red or white or any other kind. “No, I’m sorry.”
“So, what would you like to drink?”
His fathomless gaze rested on the hollow of her throat for a moment before he said, “Just coffee.”
She could feel those wintry blue eyes on her back as she turned and walked away. Knowing he was watching her sent a shiver down her spine.
“That guy at booth six is…” Bobbie Sue Banks, one of the diner’s other waitresses, shook her head. “I don’t know who he is, but he’s kind of spooky, don’t you think?”
Spooky was just the right word. There was something just the slightest bit off about him. If she didn’t know better, she might have thought he was some kind of alien. She remembered an old Twilight Zone episode in which the aliens had looked just like everyone else, except one hid a third eye under his hat and the other one hid the fact that he had more than two arms under his coat.
“Well, let’s hope he’s a big tipper.” Vicki glanced over her shoulder at the booth in the back only to find that the mysterious stranger was no longer sitting there.
Frowning, she looked around the diner and then she saw him through the front window, walking down the rain-swept street with Sharlene Tilden, who had been sitting at table two. Sharlene was a cashier at Perry’s Market. She came in for dinner every night at the same time. Sharlene was divorced and it was rumored that, since her divorce, she slept around, but that was none of Vicki’s business. Anyway, she didn’t believe it for a minute. Sharlene had never been the type to indulge in casual sex.
With a shrug, Vicki tore up the stranger’s order and went to clear Sharlene’s table.
The stranger was back again the following night, sitting at the same booth in the back corner of the diner, one arm flung over the back. Once again, he wore black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a long black coat. Once again, it was as if all the darkness in the world had gathered around him.
Taking a deep breath, Vicki pulled a pencil out of her pocket and went to take his order. “What’ll it be?”
He lifted one shoulder and let it fall in a negligent shrug. “The special will be fine.”
“Are you gonna stick around long enough to eat it tonight?” she asked, jotting his order down on her pad.
A wry grin lifted one corner of his mouth. “I might.”
“Do you want coffee again?”
His gaze held hers for a long moment. Something flickered in the depths of his eyes, something primal and sensual that made her heart skip a beat and sent a rush of sexual awareness to every nerve and cell in her body.
“Sure.” His voice was soft and low, and far too intimate.
With a nod, she dragged her gaze from his and went to turn in his order. Standing near the counter, she glanced around the room, noticing for the first time that Sharlene wasn’t there. Vicki checked her watch, then shrugged. It was always possible that Sharlene had decided to eat dinner at home. She did that once in a while, though not often. She had told Vicki once that she wasn’t crazy about cooking and she hated to eat alone.
Vicki noted the other regulars. There was old Bert Summers, who owned the local newspaper, and Judy West, who worked over at the Pear Blossom Creek Curl and Dye Beauty Salon. Judy was always trying out “a new look.” Tonight, her shoulder-length hair was pink and teased into a beehive that made it look just like cotton candy. Jovial Rex Curtis, who owned and operated the car repair shop across town, was avidly reading the sports page; Maddy Malone, who was a teller at the Pear Blossom Creek Bank and Trust Company, had her nose buried in a book. Vicki had always thought Rex and Maddy were made for each other.
A pretty redhead sat alone at table five. Vicki didn’t remember seeing the woman in the diner before, but that wasn’t unusual. A lot of their customers were travelers passing through town who stopped in at the diner just long enough for a quick cup of coffee or a bite to eat.
Vicki turned away when Gus called her name to tell her that her order was up. As she carried the tray to the far side of the room, she noticed that the stranger was gone. Tonight, he had left a twenty dollar bill under his water glass.
Biting down on her lower lip, Vicki looked over her shoulder.
Somehow, she wasn’t the least bit surprised to discover that the pretty redhead was gone, too.
Victoria slept late Sunday morning. Looking at the clock through one bleary eye, she saw that she had missed early Mass. With a groan and a sense of guilt, she threw back the covers and swung her legs over the edge of the bed.
Yawning, she slid her feet into her slippers, pulled on her fuzzy pink robe, and padded into the kitchen. She turned the fire on under the old-fashioned coffeepot that had belonged to her grandmother, opened the curtains over the window, then went out front to pick up the paper, glad to see that it had finally stopped raining. She stood there a minute, enjoying the beauty of a crisp fall morning. After a good rain, everything always looked fresh, as if the earth had been reborn. The grass looked greener and brighter, the sky more blue. Even the birds seemed happier as they flitted from tree to tree singing their early-morning hymns to another new day.
Returning to the kitchen, Vicki poured herself a cup of coffee, added a splash of milk and a spoonful of sugar, then sat down to read the paper.
She read the headline, blinked, and read it again.
BODIES OF TWO YOUNG WOMEN FOUND
NEAR HELLFIRE HOLLOW
FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED
Her coffee forgotten, she quickly read the story. The women had been found by a couple of teenage boys who had been out hunting squirrels in the dense woods near the Hollow. Both women had been fully clothed. There had been no signs of sexual molestation, and no outward signs of violence.
“Except for the two dead bodies,” Vicki muttered.
The article went on to say that a large chunk of hair had been taken from the head of each woman, which led the police to believe the murders might be the work of a serial killer since they often collected trophies or souvenirs from their victims.
The story went on in detail about the reaction of the teenagers, both of whom Vicki saw in the diner from time to time. She gasped when she read the names of the deceased. Sharlene Tilden and Leslie Ann Lewis.
Vicki shook her head in disbelief. She had gone to school with Sharlene and her younger sister, Donna Jean. The Tilden family lived down the street from Vicki. If something so horrible could happen to Sharlene, it could happen to anyone. She frowned as she read the next paragraph, which stated that both bodies had been completely drained of blood.
A cold shiver ran down Vicki’s spine. The article stated that as far as the police could ascertain, both Sharlene and the other woman had last been seen at Ozzie’s Diner.
The article went on to say that Lewis’s next of kin had been notified and then, almost as an afterthought, mentioned that both of the deceased women had been redheads.
Vicki lifted a hand to her own red hair. Surely the fact that both of the victims had been redheads was mere coincidence.
If the story hadn’t been so lurid, if it hadn’t been reported by the police, she might have suspected it was just another one of the high school pranks that were so prevalent in Pear Blossom Creek in the weeks before Halloween. But the body found near Hellfire Hollow last year had been made out of newspaper, a couple rolls of duct tape, and a wig one of the kids had stolen from the Curl and Dye.
Vicki sat back in her chair. This was no high school prank. Two women had been murdered in two days. What on earth was going on?
Last seen at Ozzie’s Diner, the paper said. She could have added that the last time she had seen the two women, they had been in the company of a tall, dark man who was a stranger in town.
She dressed hurriedly after a quick breakfast and went to Mass, where she lit a candle for Sharlene’s soul and then, after a moment’s reflection, she lit a candle for the other woman who had been killed.
Vicki stayed close to home the rest of the day. Feeling like she needed to connect with her family, she called her sister. Karen lived in St. Louis with her husband, Richard, and their four kids. Richard was an accountant for an insurance company. Most of their conversation was about Karen’s kids and how fast they were growing. Richie was six, Lucy was five, Carolyn was three and a half, and the baby, Lori, was already five months old.
After about twenty minutes, Karen said, “Listen, I’ve got to go, the baby’s crying. But you’ve got to come for a visit real soon, okay? Here’s Mom.”
Vicki spent the next hour chatting with her mother. As usual, most of the conversation was about Vicki’s lack of a prospective husband.
“If you’d get out of that small town, maybe you’d find someone,” Mona said.
Thinking of the recent murders, Vicki wondered if that wasn’t a good idea, especially since the murderer seemed to have a fondness for redheads.
“I’ve got to go, Mom.”
“You might give that nice Arnie Hall another chance.”
“Mom, we’ve been through all that before.”
“All right, dear. Tell Gus hello for me.”
“I will. Talk to you soon, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too, dear. Bye now.”
Vicki was in the midst of doing her laundry later that afternoon when Bobbie Sue called.
“Hey, Vicki, any chance you could work for me tomorrow night? Steve’s fixin’ to take me to the Toby Keith concert over in Pine Grove.”
“I don’t know, Bobbie Sue…”
“Sakes alive, Vicki, it’s Toby Keith! How often does he come here? How often does anyone come here? Please, Vicki?”
“But it’s my night off. I was thinking of going to a movie.”
“If you do this for me, I’ll be your best friend.”
Vickie had to laugh at that. It was something they had said since they were children whenever they wanted something really bad. “You’re already my best friend.”
“Vicki Cavendish, I’m down on my knees here.”
Vicki sighed. She was off on Monday nights, but how could she refuse? Bobbie Sue was obsessed with Toby Keith. She had all his CDs and she played them constantly. “Oh, all right, but you owe me big time.”
“Anything,” Bobbie Sue promised. “All you have to do is ask.”
The murders were all anyone talked about on Monday morning. At the bank, at the post office, when she went to drop off her clothes at the cleaners, it was the main topic of conversation. The police were asking the townspeople to come forward if they had seen or heard anything suspicious, no matter how insignificant it might seem, and to let them know if they had seen any strangers loitering around town.
She had seen a stranger, Vicki thought as she drove to work later that evening, although she wasn’t sure that sitting in Ozzie’s Diner could be construed as loitering.
She felt a shiver of unease when that same stranger entered the diner a couple of hours later and again sat at the booth in the far corner. She hesitated before moving toward him, wondering if he had killed Sharlene and the Lewis woman. She glanced around the diner, noting that there were no single women, redheaded or otherwise, sitting at any of the tables tonight.
He smiled as she approached the booth. “Good evening.”
He had a very sexy smile.
“Is there any point in my taking your order?” she asked, pulling her pad from the pocket of her apron.
His smile widened, revealing even white teeth that looked like they belonged in a toothpaste commercial. “Perhaps not.”
“Why do you come in here every night?” she asked, slipping her pad back into her apron pocket. “You never eat anything.”
His gaze moved over her in a way that made her blush from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. “Perhaps it is your company that draws me.”
She crossed her arms over her breasts, her expression skeptical. It didn’t happen often, but every now and then a stranger tried to pick her up. “Uh-huh.”
“You do not believe me?”
“Listen, we’re really busy tonight. Do you want anything or not?”
His gaze moved over her again, lingering on the hollow of her throat. It made her uncomfortable in a way she couldn’t quite comprehend. If he told her she looked good enough to eat, she was going to slug him. “Well?”
He glanced quickly around the room, then shook his head. “No, I want nothing but to spend some time with you.”
“Excuse me, but I’m working here.”
She was about to turn away when his voice, deliciously soft and sinfully seductive, stayed her.
“Come out with me, Victoria. I will not hurt you, I promise.”
She stared at him, thinking what an odd thing that was for a man to say to a woman. “I can’t, sorry.”
“Perhaps you will change your mind.”
The thought of going out with him made her mouth go dry. “I don’t think so.”
She moved away from the table as quickly as she could without running. When she risked a glance at the booth a short time later, he was gone. Again, he had left her a generous tip.
She was too busy the rest of the night to spend much time thinking about the stranger, but later that night, when she was at home soaking in a hot bubble bath, his image rose up in her mind—dark blue eyes, long black hair, a fine blade of a nose, a strong jaw, sensual lips, cheekbones that were high and prominent, skin that looked a trifle pale. But then, maybe he didn’t spend much time in the sun. Lots of people avoided it these days, what with all the worry about the dangers of too much sun and skin cancer.
Still later, while lying in bed watching a late movie, she found herself thinking of the stranger again, wondering if he would show up at the diner tomorrow night, wondering what would happen if she went out with him. She quickly put that idea right out of her mind. She had seen two women leave the diner with him, two redheaded women, and now they were both dead, their bodies dumped out near the Hollow, both drained of blood. There was no proof that the stranger had killed them. But then, there was no proof that he hadn’t.
Still, she spent a few moments thinking how good it would make her feel if she could call her mother and her sister and tell them that she’d had a date with a really hot-looking guy. But she wasn’t brave enough, or foolish enough, to go out with a total stranger, no matter how hunky he was, not when that stranger had been seen with two women who had been mu. . .
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