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HE NEEDED A WOMAN.
If Jake McCann had been anywhere else in the free world, he would have headed for the nearest singles bar. But he was stuck in the middle of nowhereaka Skull Creek, Texasand so he'd headed for its one and only pickup spot: the forty-second annual Founder's Day festival, a weeklong celebration that kicked off with tonight's carnival.
He tipped back the brim of his Stetson and studied his surroundings. The rides had been set up on the ten-acre stretch of gravel parking lot behind the local high school. Pastureland surrounded the area, stretching endlessly in all directions, reminding Jake exactly how far out of his element he really was.
No blinding lights or slabs of concrete. No sirens wailing in the distance or horns honking. Instead he heard the whir of rides, barks of laughter and the cry of a violin from the country two-step that drifted from the large tent at the rear of the carnival, where a battle of the local bands had commenced.
There was a giant Ferris wheel and a brightly lit merry-go-round, along with a few more daring rides. Mad Teacups. to hang with her boyfriend tonight.
He had his own addiction.
His own curse.
Not for long.
He'd searched and watched and waited for the past ten years since discovering the means to free himself, and the time had finally come. In nine days he would escape the hunger that held him captive. He would face his past, his sire, and he would defeat himand then he would be normal again.
A man rather than a vampire.
If he intended to be victorious, he had to be at the top of his game.
And there was only one surefire way to beef up his strengthhe needed to feed.
Not in the traditional sense. There were some perks to being over one hundred years oldnamely he could go days without sinking his fangs into a sweet, succulent female. Contrary to popular myth, the need for blood didn't define him. It was just a part of who he was.
He was also a giant mass of energy.
Tonight's hunt was all about charging that energy. About finding another life force, preferably while it was at its most vibrant, and soaking up the extra voltage.
Tonight's hunt was all about S-E-X.
That's why Jake had left Houston and his motorcycle design business to head for the hill country. He wanted plenty of time to prepare for the coming confrontation. He'd ridden into town just a few hours ago, over a week before his sire was due to return to Skull Creek to relive the turning.
It was what all vampires did on the anniversary of their change. On the exact date, at the exact moment, each was instinctively called back to the site where he or she had left their humanity behind. While reliving the moment of death, a vampire was at his most vulnerable.
Jake had managed to pinpoint the location and he intended to launch his attack while his sire was at his weakest. But he wasn't going to rely on timing alone to guarantee victory.
He'd checked himself into the nearest motel and wasted zero time in heading straight for the one event that offered the biggest selection of femalesthe carnival that kicked off a weeklong celebration honoring the town's founders. In particular, Sam Black who'd single-handedly fought off a group of Santa Anna's men during the Texas Revolution and preserved the small settlement of Skull Creek.
The man was a legend. A hero.
To everyone but Jake. He walked toward the ticket booth, looking, sensing, feeling. It was another perk of being what he was and the only one he was truly going to miss. Trust had never been a high commodity with the people in his life. Not during the thirty years he'd been human nor in the hundred-plus years since.
Luckily he didn't walk into any situation blindly. He could look into any human's eyes and see their darkest fear, their fondest dream, their deepest desire, their true character. It had saved his ass more than once since he'd been turned and it also kept him from hooking up with the wrong type of woman.
Namely the nice kind. The ones interested in more than a night of hot, wild, steamy sex. The sort who wanted love and marriage and commitment.
All three were impossible for him.
Love? Hell, he'd never been in love with anyone, not when he'd been just a man, and certainly not since he'd turned. He wasn't even sure such a thing existed.
And marriage? Immortality sort of put a crimp in the whole till-death-do-us-part deal.
As for commitment He had that one down pat, but it didn't involve a female. His dedication centered solely on finding and destroying the vampire who'd turned him back in 1883 and freeing himself once and for all.
Jake's only real potential when it came to the opposite sex involved lots of bone-melting orgasms. That much he could and would guarantee every woman. Rather than deceive anyone, he preferred to be as up-front as possible. Obviously he wasn't anxious to get himself staked, so he kept the vampire part to himself. But his intentionssex and nothing but sexhe made crystal clear.
That was the only promise Jake ever made.
The only one he could keep.
He kept walking, his boots crunching gravel with each step. The cool evening breeze slid over his bare arms and whispered over his skin, feeding the anxiety already gripping him tight. His gaze slid this way and that.
Just beyond the roar of the rides and the squeals of laughter, he heard the sharp intake of breath. A soft gasp that popped in his head and stoked the fire in his blood.
The sound drew him around the corner, away from the games, toward the food section which had been separated into three aisles: Sweets Boulevard, Vegetable Drive and Hearty Meat Street.
He turned down the first aisle and stopped a few feet shy of one booth draped in vibrant pink tulle. His gaze zeroed in on the woman who waited for a mountain of cotton candy to be draped around a white paper cone.
Her long strawberry-blond hair had been pulled back into a simple ponytail. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, the name Dog the Bounty Hunter emblazoned across the back.
She wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. But there was just something about her a warmth that sizzled through the air between them and drew his undivided attention.
"Thanks, Molly," she told the forty-something woman who handed her the treat. She fished in her pocket for a dollar bill.
"On the house," Molly told her, waving the money away.
"Just make sure you squeeze me in for a color tomorrow afternoon. I want to look my best for the rib cook-off tomorrow night." She grinned. "I think Arliss Dupree is going to ask me out. I heard from Mabel who heard from Louise who heard from Denise Duttmeyer that he was seen stocking up on antacids." A dreamy look crept into the older woman's eyes. "I just love a man who plans ahead."
"Call the salon first thing in the morning and I'll work you in." She stuffed the money back into her pocket and started to turn.
"And, by the way, just you never mind about Bill." The cotton candy lady waved her hand. "He's a slimy turd and you're better off without him."
The blonde stiffened, and even though Jake couldn't see her face, he felt the disappointment that rolled through her. And the embarrassment.
"And here I always thought he was such a nice boy," Molly went on. "Just goes to show that you can't trust anybody, even a savings-and-loan officer. If he'll lie about going to Vegas on the pretense of attending a seminar only to have an orgy with a couple of strippers, he'll fudge on interest rates, that's for damn sure."
"I It's okay, really. It's not like we were engaged or anything." Not yet.
The silent thought crossed the distance to Jake and echoed in his head. Anger rolled through him and his fingers tightened. He had the sudden urge to hunt down the slimy turd and beat him to a bloody pulp.
"If you need anything," Molly told her, "you know where to find me. Or if you want my nephew Zeke to break his ankles, I can arrange that, too. Zeke always liked you, you know."
"Really? I never would have guessed, what with the way he ran over my lunch with his bike back in the sixth grade."
"Aw, honey, my poor, departed ReggieGod rest his souldid the same thing to me back when we were in grade school." Molly beamed. "Men just have their own way of expressing themselves. Haven't you read that Mars and Venus book? You really ought to read that. You might have better luck with the fellas."
"Thanks." Not. The thought slid across the distance to him as clear and distinct as if she'd whispered directly in his ear. "I'll keep my eye out for it." She turned then, giving him his first real look at her face.
His heart paused and he stopped breathing for a long, drawn-out moment. Not that he needed oxygen, mind you, but old habits really were hard to break. And this particular one made it easier to blend in and preserve his anonymity.
His pulse quickened as his gaze roved over her. She wasn't exceptionally beautiful. She wore very little makeup and her mouth wasn't as full as he usually liked. But there was an excitement that burned in her whiskey-colored eyes as she stared at the candy confection in her hand. A vibrancy that zipped down his spine and fireballed smack-dab in his gut. All thoughts of revenge faded into a rush of need that drew his body painfully tight.
He watched as she touched the fluffy sweet to her lips and felt the satisfaction that pulsed hot and consuming at the first luscious bite. She closed her eyes, letting the candy melt on her tongue, but the taste lasted only a few blissful seconds and did little to relieve the anxiety knotting her muscles.
Because she didn't really want cotton candy. Or funnel cakes. Or caramel apples. Or any of the other treats being dished up at the various booths that lined the aisle.
She wanted something richerand much more potent. She stiffened and two tiny lines pinched between her eyebrows. A subtle change that no one else seemed to notice. Hell, other than the occasional hello from a friendly face, no one really noticed her at all.
Except for Jake.
He saw the disappointment that clouded her gaze and the stiff way she held her shoulders and he felt the restthe hot rush of blood through her veins, the frantic beat of her heart, the buzz of her nerves and the tingle of her nipples.
She was a bubbling cauldron of repressed sexual energy just waiting to boil over.
Jake smiled and stepped forward.
It was time to turn up the heat.