February 2007
Avon
ISBN 0060774126


Argeneau Family Tree
Notte Family Tree

Audiobook
Oct 27, 2009
Order audiobook at Audible.com

One minute Leigh is walking home in the early hours of the morning, and the next a vampire is sinking his teeth into her neck. Turns out it was a rogue vampire marked for termination, but it does Leigh little good because the damage has already been done. She’s become one of them.

Lucian Argeneau, hunter of rogue vampires, has been alive for over two thousand years, and there’s very little to excite him anymore. Food has become tasteless, sex is ordinary. Then Leigh drops into his life. Suddenly he finds himself craving coffee… and imagining the sassy brunette atop the black satin sheets on his nice big bed. It’s Lucian’s job now to enlighten Leigh on the inner workings of being immortal… and tutoring her is igniting a fire in him that hasn’t burned in centuries.

But until they stop a renegade bloodsucker from destroying the human race, the passion will have to wait!


Chapter One

Leigh was only a block and a half from home when she noticed the footsteps echoing her own. At first she didn’t think anything of it. This was Kansas. Nothing ever happened here, especially not at five in the morning. Even Dorothy and Toto had to get picked up by a tornado and dropped somewhere else for adventure to come their way.

Of course, this was Kansas City, not some backwater town. There was crime in the city. It was also five o’clock in the morning, and she was a lone woman walking down a dark street that – while a residential area of old houses with families – was also only a couple of blocks from the downtown core where the homeless and druggies tended to concentrate.

A shiver of unease crept up Leigh’s spine as she became aware that the footsteps behind her had picked up speed and were drawing nearer. She’d walked this route hundreds of times over the last five years and never once felt uncomfortable…and didn’t like that she now was. Telling herself to stay calm, she tried to recall what she’d been taught to do in self-defense class, but, of course, now that she needed it, her brain was blanking on her.

Wasn’t that always the way?

She felt her muscles begin to tense as the footsteps continued to draw nearer, and feared if she didn’t do something soon, it might be too late.

The thought spurred her into action. Changing direction, Leigh cut toward the curb to cross the street, casting a nonchalant glance back as she did, as if looking for traffic. The glance didn’t reassure her. The person approaching was a man; tall, slender, and dressed in dark clothes. She couldn’t see his face, however; it was in shadow, thanks to the hood of his jacket. All she’d managed to do with her quick glance was make herself more uncomfortable, more on edge. More scared.

Acting as if she weren’t troubled by his presence, Leigh started across the street, her mind now considering and discarding possibilities of what she should do. A glance around the dark house-lined street ahead told her she was on her own, there wasn’t a car or pedestrian to be seen. No help there.

She really should have taken a taxi home, she acknowledged, but had never had a problem before, why should she have thought this morning would be any different? Besides, it was too late for regrets, they weren’t if going to get her anywhere.

Leigh felt her heart squeeze tight as the footsteps followed her across the street. Now her gaze was sharp as she scanned the houses she passed, searching for any sign of life, trying to deduce which she should approach for help. This was a quiet residential street, the houses in darkness, people having long retired for the night and not yet rising. She appeared to be the only person in this area who worked late and was still up.

Coco’s, the restaurant/bar she owned, closed at 3:00 a.m.. Well, the bar closed then, the restaurant area closed much earlier. Leigh managed the bar at night. Once the last customer trundled out and the cleaning crew set to work, she retired to her back office to do paperwork; filling out the work schedules, checking time cards, writing up orders, checking the day's receipts, and so on. She was usually done about the same time as the cleaners. Otherwise, she waited for them to finish, saw them out, locked up and headed home…always between 5:00. and 5:30 a.m., that dark predawn time when most criminals were tucked in bed.

Just as everyone on this road appeared to be, Leigh thought, her heart sinking. Then she spotted a porch light pop on several houses up. A moment later the front door opened and an older lady in a housecoat appeared. The woman didn’t notice her coming up the street, her attention on the German shepherd who slipped past her to pad eagerly down the steps onto the front lawn.

“Waking me up before dawn.” The woman’s annoyed mutter carried clearly in the near silence. “You should have gone when I took you out for your walk earlier.”

Leigh's heart lifted. A safe port in the storm. She could seek shelter from the woman and call the police, or maybe just a taxi. Surely the dog’s presence would discourage the man following her from making a nuisance of himself?

She put on a burst of speed and opened her mouth to call out, but that was as far as she got. She never heard the man behind her pick up speed, never realized he’d rushed forward. Suddenly he was there before her, forcing her to an abrupt halt.

“Hello, Leigh.”

The sound of her name made her pause with confusion, then the man shrugged the hood off his head, revealing his face.

“Donny?” She said with surprise, relief coursing through her. Donny Avries had worked the bar at Coco’s for a year. He was always eager to please and a hard worker. Milly -- Leigh’s friend, and her day manager in the restaurant -- claimed he had a crush on her and had begged for steady night shifts to be near her, but Liegh thought that was nonsense. They just got along well as friends. She'd been terribly upset when he'd gone missing more than a week ago.

Usually prompt, and often even early for his shift, Donny simply hadn't shown up on Monday night. Leigh had tried calling his apartment, but there’d been no answer. When he hadn’t shown up the next night, she’d called again, then grown concerned and called his landlady to have her check on him.

The woman reported that while everything looked fine in his apartment, his cat was obviously hungry and the litter box had been overflowing, suggesting he hadn’t been home for a while. While there were no signs that he’d left on a planned trip, she’d talked to people in the neighboring apartments, and no one had seen Donny since he’d gone out Saturday night with some friends. They’d decided to call the police.

Now, a week later, the police had been to the restaurant twice, asking questions and admitting that he appeared to have disappeared. They told her to contact the station if she heard from him.

“Where have you been?” Leigh asked, anger replacing concern. She’d been worried sick about the man, and here he stood, apparently fine and well.

Donny hesitated, then said simply, “You’ll see.”

Leigh blinked at his answer, not finding it acceptable after all her concern. And frankly, the words -- as well as the odd smile on his face -- were creeping her out. There was also something strange about his eyes.

“No, I won’t see,” she said firmly. Her fear had now fully turned to anger, and she was no longer in the mood to hear what he had to say for himself. Turning on her heel, she continued in the direction she’d been heading. “You can explain yourself tomorrow when you come by to pick up your severance pay.”

She'd taken only a few steps before, unaccountably, stopping, her body going limp. She heard the soft thud as her purse slid from her lifeless hands and landed on the grassy verge along the sidewalk, then found herself slowly turning back. Donny was no longer alone; another man stood beside him. He was tall and lanky, with long, straw-colored hair that hung in greasy strips around a thin pale face. He also had yellow-brown eyes that seemed to glow.

If her sudden lack of control over her own body hadn’t been enough to scare her, one glimpse of this man’s dead eyes was enough to make her blood turn to ice.

“Hello, Leigh. Donny's told me a lot about you.” He smiled, and she saw his two canine teeth slide down and forward to form two pointed fangs.

Some part of her mind shut off at the sight, telling her it wasn’t real, that it wasn’t ready to accept it as real and it was going to sleep now. But she snapped back with horror when the man abruptly swooped forward, enveloping her in the darkness that seemed to surround him. She felt a pinch on her throat, then excitement and pleasure rushed through her like a drug.

“Ah,” Donny complained from somewhere beyond the shoulder blocking her view. “I wanted to be the one to bite her.”

Leigh blinked at the whiney sound to his voice, even as the pleasure invading her faltered and the man before her muttered something against her throat.

“What?” Donny asked. He moved into view as he tapped the man’s shoulder. “What did you say?”

The man muttered again, something again that came out sounding like, “’Huh-uh!” Then he lifted his head with an impatient tsk and glared over his shoulder at Donny.

“Shut up!” he snapped, and some part of Leigh’s mind thought, Ohhh, that’s what he’d said.

“I am the master vampire,” he went on. “I am the one who sires new children of the night.”

Leigh’s eyes widened at his words. Vampires?

She supposed it was hard not to accept that when the guy’s fangs were flashing with every word and there was blood on his tips. Hers, she presumed. She could feel warm liquid running down her throat and dampening the front of her white blouse. It was coming from the spot where he’d nipped her, and she suspected it was blood, so…a vampire? Okay. But “children of the night?” That sounded a bit corny and too late-night-movie to her.

That’s when she realized that she might have lost it. Having such thoughts in the midst of this situation just didn’t seem all that healthy. Unfortunately, she realized it wasn’t just her body she couldn’t control. Her mind felt woozy, as if she’d been given a tranquilizer. Her thoughts were her own, but she couldn’t seem to work up much concern over what was happening. While her mind was urging her to scream her head off, she just couldn’t seem to work up any fear, or the energy to even yell.

“That is because you are under my control,” the man holding her announced, as if he’d read her thoughts, and Leigh supposed he had. Weren’t vampires supposed to be able to control their victim’s minds? Of course, they were also supposed to be irresistibly attractive and suave. Unfortunately Donny was just your average red-haired, freckle-faced guy, and Mr. I-Am-the-Master-Vampire wasn’t particularly handsome…or charismatic either, for that matter. Really, it was all rather disappointing when she thought about it.

A low growl drew her attention to Mr. Master Vampire, and she noted with some concern that he looked kind of pissed off.

“You will change your mind,” he growled, staring into her eyes. “You will want me uncontrollably, desire me beyond all others, obey me without question.”

It was the obey thing where he lost her. Leigh wasn’t big on the word. It had been her ex-husband’s favorite order…usually just before he tried to use his fists to convince her. It was the main reason he became an ex.

“Hey, Morgan,” Donny protested, his voice again whiny. “What are you doing? We’re supposed to be turning her for me.

“Shut up, Donald,” Morgan snapped. His eyes were narrowed on Leigh, and she suspected he was beginning to realize she wasn’t completely under his spell. She knew for sure she was right when he asked, “How can you be thinking? You shouldn’t be thinking, but I can hear your thoughts.”

Leigh had no idea why, either. If she’d been able to, she would have shrugged in response. Unfortunately, while her mind was somewhat her own, her body was not.

A growl distracted Morgan and he glanced down to the side. Leigh still couldn’t move her head, but her eyes did angle down and she caught a fuzzy glimpse of a dog. She recognized it at once as the German shepherd she’d seen come out of the house up the street. For a moment she thought the animal might yet save her, but then Morgan flashed his fangs in a sort of half hiss, half growl, and the dog backed off, head low, teeth bared, but his own growl losing some of it’s strength.

“Morgan,” Donny began nervously, eyeing the German shepherd who was still close enough to be worrisome.

“Oh, do shut up, Donald,” the Master Vampire said with exasperation. Then, to her surprise, he scooped her into his arms and started back across the street.

Donny followed. He was muttering under his breath with resentment, Leigh noted, glancing over the shoulder of the man carrying her. Then her view was obstructed as Morgan carried her around the back of a black van. She'd crossed the road just two car lengths before the van earlier, and now suspected it was where Morgan had appeared from. She was sure it had only been one set of footsteps following her up the street. Donny’s. Morgan, she supposed, had been waiting in the van, and if she hadn’t crossed the street, the side door of the van probably would have opened as she passed and she’d have been dragged inside.

Leigh suspected she'd forced them to change plans when she’d crossed the street.

“You’re a clever girl,” Morgan said as he set her in the back of the van. “That’s exactly what happened.”

He'd obviously read her mind again, Leigh realized as he climbed in after her. Donny closed the doors behind them, and a moment later she heard the driver’s door open. The van shifted a bit on its wheels as he got in the driver's seat.

“I don’t know why you still have control of some of your faculties, but it intrigues me,” Morgan announced, lifting her into his lap so that she leaned back against his right arm as the van’s engine roared to life.

Woo-hoo, she thought dryly. She’d impressed a blood-sucking vampire.

Morgan seemed amused by her thoughts. At least, a smile curved his lips, but his voice was deadly serious as he announced, “And you shall be a blood-sucking vampire, too. Will you like me better then, I wonder? Once I am your sire?”

Leigh was trying to decide if he meant from the bite he’d given her or if he’d have to bite her two more times, like in the books and movies, when he abruptly raised his left wrist to his mouth and sliced open a vein with one of his fangs.

Oh, that is so totally gross, she thought.

“Yes,” Morgan agreed as if she’d spoken aloud. “And it hurts like a bugger, believe me. However, it is necessary, I’m afraid.”

Leigh was still trying to sort out why it would be necessary when her mouth suddenly opened of its own accord and he pressed his bleeding wrist to her lips. The tinny liquid poured over her teeth and across her tongue. She was forced to swallow or choke on it. She swallowed.

****

Dry grass and dead branches crunched under Lucian Argeneau’s boots as he approached the van parked in the trees at the edge of the property. Two men stood by the open back doors, choosing and checking weapons in the gray predawn light. Like himself, they were dressed all in black and were over six feet tall. Both were also muscular and had short hair, but one was a brunet and the other a blond.

“Are we set?” he asked, running one hand through his own short ice-blond hair.

“Set,” Bricker -- the brunet -- said calmly as he leaned into the van to grab two cans of gasoline. “How do you want to do this?”

Lucian shrugged, unable to find any real enthusiasm for the task ahead. He’d done this so many times over the years that there was little challenge to it anymore. He found it more interesting to track down the nests than to clear them out, but even that was less challenging than it used to be.

It didn’t help that this was Morgan they were going after. He had been a best friend to Lucian’s twin brother, Jean Claude, right up until the other man’s death a few years earlier. The two men had been thick as thieves for centuries, and because of that, Lucian had counted the man as a friend as well. So much so that when the first whispers and rumors that Morgan had turned rogue started, Lucian ignored them, sure they couldn’t be true. The rumors had persisted, however, and he’d had to look into the matter, though not enthusiastically. Now, here he stood, the rumors confirmed and Morgan marked for death.

“Here comes the sun,” Mortimer murmured, and then repeated Bricker’s question, “How do you want to do this?”

Lucian blinked away his thoughts and took in the first rays of sunlight creeping up to drive away the night. This was the best time to hit. Everyone would be returned to the nest by now and settling in to sleep the day away.

Because -- of course -- vampires didn’t walk during the day, he thought dryly as his gaze slid over the surrounding trees, then finally to the decrepit house where Morgan had holed up with the pack of rogues he was creating. It looked bad in this light, but was worse -- he knew -- in daylight, when the sun baked down cruelly on the flaking paint, the boarded-over windows, and the weed-tangled lawn.

How the rogues chose to live never failed to amaze him. It was as if -- once their mind snapped and they decided to become the scourge of the earth -- they believed normal, civilized homes were beyond them. Or perhaps they were simply living down to what mortals thought they were, hoping to lure and hold their pack members in thrall that way. After all, if mortals knew how little magic immortals truly had, they might find it less attractive to be one, or at least to be their servants.

Shaking off these cynical thoughts, Lucian glanced toward the other two men and finally gave his answer. “The same as always.”

Nodding, Mortimer closed the van doors, took the larger gas can from Bricker, and the three of them moved to the edge of the woods. They paused, their gazes sliding over the windows once again. There was no sign of movement from the house, but half the windows were boarded up so that didn’t mean much.

“Do we give them a couple more minutes to settle in, or--” Mortimer’s question died, and they all glanced around as the sound of a vehicle disturbed the silence. They watched in silent surprise as a dark van turned into the driveway and crunched up the gravel lane.

“Hmm,” Lucian said, with his first real spark of interest. This was different. Usually the “vampires” would have been in-house by now, if not already snug in the coffins they seemed to favor.

They moved back a bit into the trees to be less visible. As they watched, the van parked close to the house, then the driver jumped out and ran around to open the rear doors.

Lucian stiffened as Morgan swept out of the van, a brunette in his arms. Dressed in a short black skirt and a bloodstained white blouse, her eyes shot over the house and yard as if seeking an escape, but the way she lay limp in Morgan’s arms told him that the rogue immortal had taken control of her body. There would be no escape.

“That’s Leigh,” Mortimer murmured with a frown.

“She works the bar at Coco’s. The restaurant we’ve eaten at all week,” Bricker explained and Lucian grunted. Justin Bricker was young enough that he still ate, and Garrett Mortimer went along to keep him company and sometimes picked at food.

Lucian didn’t bother with food, but he’d heard a lot this week about the "pretty little thing" who’d served them their late meals in the bar. They both seemed taken with her charm and sense of humor, and he supposed this Leigh was the "pretty little thing" in question. Certainly, neither man seemed pleased to see her being carried up the porch steps, obviously about to become Morgan’s latest victim.

“We have to help her,” Bricker said.

Mortimer nodded in agreement. “Yeah.”

“She could be willing,” Lucian pointed out, though there had been something in her eyes that suggested she wasn’t.

Both men were silent, their gazes locked on the woman Morgan was carrying into the house.

“No. She isn’t,” Mortimer said with certainty as the door closed behind the trio. He sounded grim and angry. Mortimer rarely got angry.

Bricker agreed, “No, she isn’t.”

Shrugging, Lucian turned his gaze back to the house. “We should give them ten minutes or so to settle in for the night.”

“But the longer we wait, the worse it could be for Leigh,” Bricker protested.

"He's already bitten her and given her his own blood," Mortimer pointed out, obviously having gained the news from her thoughts when he'd read her. "There isn't much more he'd bother doing to her before she finishes turning."

Bricker frowned and glanced at Lucian. "We're taking her out of there, right?" When Lucian hesitated, he argued, "She hasn't bitten anyone yet, and doesn't want to be there. Leigh’s a nice lady."

“We'll see," Lucian said finally.

Realizing it was all he’d get for now, Bricker fell silent, but he looked worried.

Lucian ignored him and proceeded to examine his equipment. He gave his crossbow a once-over, then counted the specially made wooden arrows in the quiver strapped to his leg. Satisfied that all was in order there, he retrieved the gun from his pocket, checking to see that it was fully loaded and the safety was on before putting it back.

Lucian glanced toward the house, impatient to get things going. Then he forced himself to wait the full ten minutes, but the moment the digital face of his watch said that time had passed, his hand tightened on his crossbow and he started forward without a word.

Mortimer and Bricker fell into step on either side of him as he emerged from the trees and approached the dilapidated house. They mounted the front porch as silently as possible.

“Careless,” Mortimer murmured when Lucian turned the knob and the door opened. The red-haired guy hadn’t bothered to lock it. Lucian wasn’t terribly surprised. If he was newly turned, the man would see himself as invincible, and none of Morgan’s followers should be more than a month or so old. That was when the first whispers that Morgan had gone rogue started.

The three men eased into the house, eyes alert, ears straining for any sound. As expected, the upper floor appeared deserted. After setting the cans of gasoline in the kitchen, they separated to make a thorough, silent search of the top two floors, just to be sure. Once finished, they regrouped in the kitchen and approached the door they knew led to the basement.

Lucian was thorough by nature and had trained anyone who worked with him to be so, to. They always sought out all the information they could on a nest before approaching it. Knowing the layout made things much easier, and this time they’d managed to track down the daughter of the previous owner. The woman had sold the house when her mother died, but had grown up there and knew it well. From her, they’d learned all they could and even got a crude drawing of the layout before erasing all memory of their visit.

Now, Mortimer and Bricker moved to the left-hand side of the door while Lucian moved to the right. Once situated, he nodded at the other two men, raised his crossbow and reached for the doorknob with his free hand. That hand froze an inch away when the knob began to turn on its own.

Lucian jerked his hand back and waited. The door only opened halfway before the brunette named Leigh slid through and took a cautious step into the kitchen.

As Lucian stared in amazement, her head slowly turned and she blinked at the sight of him. He saw fear leap into her eyes, and moved quickly, clasping one hand over her mouth and drawing her silently away from the door so that her back was pressed hard to his chest.

Her body briefly tensed, as if preparing to struggle, then she abruptly went still. When Lucian glanced down, he saw that her wide eyes were on Mortimer and Bricker on the other side of the door. Both men were giving her what he supposed were reassuring smiles. To him, they just looked like a pair of idiots, but it apparently worked on Leigh. As he watched, Bricker placed one finger to his mouth to warn her to be quiet, while Mortimer stared at her with a concentration that suggested he was sending her reassuring thoughts and perhaps also the same silent warning. The woman relaxed against Lucian, and he found himself responding as her body molded to his, her bottom unintentionally nestling his groin.

“I just fell asleep, Donald. I don’t appreciate being woken up for this.”

Lucian stiffened as that voice floated up the stairs, aware that Leigh had gone still. She was actually holding her breath, he realized, and found he disliked that she was so afraid.

“I’m sorry, sire,” someone – presumably Donald – responded, but in truth he sounded more resentful than apologetic. “But I’ve searched the basement and she-”

“Because she’s not going to hide in the basement. She’s going to run, you idiot!” Morgan’s angry voice snapped back.

“But why? Why isn’t she willing?” Donald’s voice had turned frustrated and even whiney.

“Not everyone wants to be a child of the night. I warned you of that. I told you, you couldn't turn your back on her for a moment until we have control over her. Not for a damned moment! I told you that! She isn’t a willing turn. Until she accepts me as master, she’ll try to run.”

“I just left her alone for a minute. I-”

“You shouldn’t have left her alone at all. Get her back and-”

“But what if she’s outside? The sun’s coming up!”

“You wanted her. She’s--”

The words stopped short and Lucian felt himself stiffen further. The voices had drawn closer with each passing moment, and by his guess the speakers were at the bottom of the steps now. The sudden silence seemed to suggest something had given away their presence.

Lucian glanced at Mortimer and Bricker, but he was sure neither man could be seen from below. Then he let his gaze drop over the woman before him, and spotted the problem at once. Lucian hadn’t pulled Leigh back far enough. She was short, the top of her head barely reaching the base of his throat, but she was generously proportioned and part of her generous proportions were protruding past the edge of the door in her bright white blouse.

“Is that a boob?” He heard Donald ask and Lucian closed his eyes.

The ensuing silence was so long, he knew that Morgan was seeking out Leigh’s mind and searching for information on the situation at the top of the stairs. Lucian supposed it would have been too much to hope that the man would just assume she was a bimbo bartender too stupid to leave the house and was standing up here contemplating her navel. No. Morgan suspected something was up.

Knowing their surprise approach was now over, Lucian shifted Leigh so he could lean forward and peer around the edge of the door. On the other side of the door, Mortimer did the same thing, and they found themselves staring at two men frozen at the bottom of the wooden steps. Then all hell broke loose.

Morgan and Donald suddenly spun and sped up the dark hall below, breaking into a run as they slipped out of sight. Bricker and Mortimer charged after them, and Lucian pulled Leigh away from the door and pushed her into a chair at the kitchen table.

“Stay,” he hissed, his gaze sliding over her face as he got his first close-up look at her. She was a beautiful woman, glossy chestnut waves of hair framing large, almond-shaped eyes, a straight nose, and high cheekbones in an oval face. She was also terribly pale and swaying in the chair, leaving him to wonder just how much blood she’d lost.

He would have asked, but a burst of gunfire from below recalled him to more urgent matters. Leaving her there, Lucian turned away and hurried downstairs after his comrades.

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