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The nightmares had sucked life from him for months.
Then they had stopped abruptly.
Tonight's bad dream was far worse. It sank its teeth deep and refused to let go.
Maybe it was wrong to call it a dream, Alex Garcia thought as he walked into a scene that was so vivid he could smell, taste and feel all that was around him.
The apartment he entered was dank and reeked of urine from the many squatters that had used the place for shelter. Only the chill of the winter night kept his discomfort to a tolerable level in the abandoned apartment. His cold sweat on the grip of his Glock turned the stock slippery. His gut tightened as he held his breath.
He was nervous.
Not a condition he was used to. He had grown accustomed to danger in his many years as a DEA agent. This mission was different.
Failure on this mission meant the possibility of death for hundreds of innocent civilians.
He repeated the vow he had made after September 11, the one that had been the reason he had accepted this assignment.
He gripped the Glock tighter and moved farther into the apartment. He and his fellow Cuban Democratic Army member were supposed to pick up a stolen handheld smart-bomb delivery system that the CDA planned to use in the terrorist attack that he intended to prevent.
The weapon was not in the empty apartment as it should have been. As he turned to look at his partner, wondering if they had gone to the wrong location, another CDA member stepped from a back room and opened fire.
The force of the blow to his chest had him reeling backward. The pain was so intense he nearly blacked out from it. When a second blast immediately followed, ripping into his midsection, his knees buckled.
He fell back against the wall, slowly sinking to the ground in a sitting position, the body of the other CDA member sprawled beside him. The man's lifeless stare confirmed that he was dead, much as Alex expected to be shortly as his assailant trained his weapon on Alex's head for the coup de grace.
The loud sounds of gunfire and an explosion outside the room distracted the shooter long enough for Alex to raise his weapon and fire.
With a surprised look, the armed man lowered his gun and stared at the blossoming trail of blood down the middle of his chest. It was the last thing he saw as he dropped to the ground, dead from a direct shot to the heart.
Alex had little time to ponder what to do next.
He was too badly wounded to move. Already he could feel the growing warmth of the blood soaking into his clothing and leaving a chill behind in his body. He was going to die there, alone and unable to do anything else to help stop the terrorist attack.
He had failed in his mission.
Outside the apartment all hell had broken loose judging from the noises reverberating in the winter night. The FBI must have moved in and the CDA was likely fighting back, determined to complete their plot.
A second later, the door to the apartment burst open, slamming against the wall.
His eyesight was fading, but he saw that a man had entered the room. He was holding something.
He forced himself to focus and realized the man held Alex's ex-lover, but Diana wasn't moving.
Blood covered the man's arms and hands as he embraced her.
Diana's blood. Too much of it.
Alex forced himself to take a painful breath, attempting to speak. It managed to get the man's attention, and as his gaze wavered, Alex finally glimpsed the man's face.
Only it wasn't a man.
Shock gathered his senses, bringing Alex to painful alertness.
He had to protect Diana from whatever that was. He tried to raise his gun, only his body refused to cooperate. He couldn't move his arm. Couldn't even feel the Glock in his hand anymore as awareness fled his dying body.
A voice suddenly penetrated his fading consciousness.
They weren't alone in the room any longer. He trained his attention on that voicea woman's husky tones.
"This one's still alive."
Alex realized she was referring to him, not that he would be alive for much longer. That realization didn't bring fear for himself, but for those he had failed.
"Unlike your friend will be shortly," the woman added and motioned to the monster holding Diana in his arms.
"Leave," the demon commanded, pain evident in that one word, but the woman just laughed and sauntered over. She crouched before the demon and Diana.
Alex's hearing and vision were dimming quickly. Only a confused murmur of voices came to him, but then the woman shot upright and strode angrily across the room toward him.
Her bright, almost phosphorescent blue-green gaze locked with his, her fangs clearly visible. A vampire, he thought for the barest of moments.
Only, vampires weren't real.
What he was seeing had to be a product of his blood loss, he thought.
But as the woman leaned closer, there was no denying what stood before him. She stared at him hard and, for a moment, reverted to human form.
She was quite beautiful as a human, he thought, before the vampire returned and bent toward him. Sharp fangs grazed his neck as the warm kiss of her lips slipped across his skin, awakening ardor.
Bestowing passion that twisted together with the pain in his body and soul as her fangs broke through his skin.
Alex shot up in bed, drenched with perspiration. Shaking from the reality of the waking nightmare and the desire that was always associated with it.
As he wiped his hands across his face, clearing the cold sweat of fear mixed with unwanted passion, he tried to scrub away the memories of the demon as well, but they refused to leave.
Refused to depart in much the way that the recurring memories of that winter night had not left him.
Alex cursed beneath his breath, hoping that he could muster enough control by the morning to pass his psychological review tomorrow. He had been itching to get back into the field for months. If the DEA psychologist picked up on the vibes from his nightmare, Alex was worried that the shrink wouldn't clear him for undercover duty.
Who could trust an agent in the field who worried that vampires roamed the darkness?
He had to get a grip, he told himself, lying back down and willing himself to go back to sleep. An untroubled sleep free of the nightmare of the failed mission and the monsters that haunted his nights.
But even as he was finally able to drift off, the vision of her faceboth vampire and mortalwove itself into his subconscious, leaving him to wonder if he maybe wasn't losing his sanity.
After nearly two thousand years of immortality, life had become predictably boring. Possibly even depressing.
Not that being a vampire didn't have certain benefits, Stacia considered, trying to convince herself that being a vampire elder rocked.
First, her age bestowed vast powers upon her. Incredible physical prowess and strength coupled with the ability to mentally control others, especially those vampires and humans she had gifted with a bite or a taste of her blood.
Even better, her elder status also brought sexual pleasures and lust beyond anything she could have ever imagined.
So what if the price paid for those powers by a shy virgin had been not only the loss of her innocence but her life?
She should revel in all that her elder powers could bring, Stacia thought as she perused the crowd passing before the veranda of her South Beach hotel. Excitement rose up at the thought of burying her teeth into the soft skin of a willing partner and drinking deeply. Maybe even creating a playmate to keep her company for a while.
Unfortunately, in her nearly two millennia of life, there had been not one partner worthy of offering a true vampire's embrace and the kind of existence that could follow.
What was worse, Stacia didn't believe it was even worth the challenge after so long.
It was why she had opted to come south since Manhattan had gotten extremely bothersome lately.
All those wannabe human vampires with their goodness and love. Still trapped in the denial stage she had survived long ago. It was totally disgusting that so many of her men had succumbed to Cupid's senseless entreaty. Even Diego, nearly an elder by virtue of his own lengthy existence, had fallen for a mortal. A dying one at that.
At least Diego had had the sense to turn the human and bind her to him.
Not that it mattered to Stacia that Diego now had a lifelong companion. The human monogamy of her friends and all the melodrama that Manhattan seemed to offer lately had grown too tiresome.
She had needed a change of pace, and Miami had seemed like just the place to visit, especially after a disturbing and violent winter in New York City. The two cities couldn't be more disparate and Stacia welcomed that change.
She stepped from the veranda of the Park Central Hotel and out into the almost pleasant air of a South Beach spring night. Almost pleasant because the humidity was building even this early in the season, gathering strength for the hot and heavy days of summer that would be there in just over a month.
It had been nearly a century since she had done a Miami summer, Stacia recalled, gliding down Ocean Drive as dusk settled over the city. Flagler's railroad had brought the rich and wealthy down to the tropical climes, helping to create the metropolis that had provided a wonderful playground for her visit during the Roaring Twenties. Forty years later the diaspora of Cubans fleeing Castro would make their mark on the city and launch a new direction for Miami's growth.
Ah, the Cubans. Her mouth watered at the thought of something so deliciously different.
She hurried down Ocean Drive, hunger and need driving her toward Lincoln Road and the nightclub the hotel's concierge had recommended. As she reached the location, she noted the long line of humans waiting to enter and the muscle-bound bouncer guarding the door.
Smiling, she walked up to the man and sent him a mental command. With a dazed look, he obeyed, lifting the velvet rope to permit her to enter despite the grumbled complaints from those at the head of the line. With a sharp glance their way, Stacia silenced them with another blast of elder power.
Inside the club, dozens of couples moved to the beats spewing from the club's sound system. Speakers were mounted everywhere, creating not just a cacophony of noise, but an almost physical assault from the pounding music. Pings, chirps and shouts emanated from some rather avid electronic gaming in an adjacent room. An odd combination of noises, and while Stacia would have preferred a quieter venue, the push of vampire power confirmed to her that others of her kind were present.
Not many vampires, however. And not one of the vamps she sensed was as powerful as she was, Stacia thought as she threaded her way through the crowd. That was just as well. She didn't want to spend the night in a pissing contest with an elder worried about her moving in on his territory.
Plus, the presence of vampires in the club confirmed it was a good place to satisfy undead needs in a variety of ways.
Pleased, she continued onward, seeking her satisfaction for the night.
The Widget provided an odd combination of entertainment, from the dancing and nightlife in one section of the club to the electronic gaming and gadgets in another.
Of course, since certain sections of Miami had once dubbed themselves Silicon Beach, it only seemed natural that someone would one day meld that aspect of the city with those for which the city was more knownthe beaches and nightclubs, Alex thought as he slipped from the low-slung seat of his customized Crossfire convertible.
Even though he was supposed to be on desk duty, Alex wanted to stay in touch with what was happening at his old haunts. A visit to the various clubs would help him be ready when he was cleared to return to his undercover assignment.
As those coming and going on foot passed by and the noises of activity within the club filtered out into the night, Alex hurried down an alley to a side door. It was guarded by a familiar face. The man smiled as he realized who it was.
"Hola, Alejandro. Good to see you."
The security guard embraced Alex heartily, clapping him on the back. He had the build of a sumo wrestler, was a good half foot taller than Alex's six feet and twice as broad as Alex across the shoulders and waist. He was also one of the drug dealers along the Ocean Drive strip and an informant Alex had relied on during many an investigation.
"Good to be alive, Pedro, unlike the guy who shot me," he said, playing the little game they always did. As far as most of the locals in South Beach knew, Alex was part of the underground that fed the sinful pleasures to be found as part of South Beach's nightlife. Only a select few knew he was an undercover agent.
With a playful jab to the other man's rotund middle, he freed himself from the bouncer's embrace and stepped through the door into the club.