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It gets cold in Las Vegas at night, especially if you are alone.
But after working all night in a casino designed to resemble a hyped-up Tales from the 1001 Arabian Nights, called the Scheherazade, shlepping drinks in instruments of torture masquerading as high-heeled shoes, fending off ass-pinchers, watching newlyweds lose their nest egg on a single roll of the dice, sometimes, the cold, thick darkness is exactly what I crave.
Tonight was one of those nights.
Besides, I’m used to being alone.
“G’night, Candace,” the night doorman said as I left the Sher through the employee exit that leads to the parking garage.
I got into my car and drove home slowly through the neon-lit streets. This is the hour when the night is at its coldest, at its darkest—the hour just before dawn. The time that normal, everyday people dread, when their eyes suddenly fly open in the darkness and it occurs to them to wonder if this will be the day when the sun declines to rise.
I never worry about this myself. When you’ve seen the things that I have, you know the truth: Truly major shit doesn’t give a damn about the time of day, and it sure as hell doesn’t go by anyone’s alarm clock. If it’s coming at you, all you can do is duck. Or run. And even then, chances are more than a little good it’s going to get you anyhow.
I pulled the car into my driveway, then, draping a long woolen coat over my shoulders, I started walking. My feet made absolutely no sound on the sidewalk.
Down my street, past another, and suddenly, it’s there before you: the Mojave desert, nestling at the feet of the Spring Mountains. You can smell the desert long before you get there, just the faintest tang of sage on the air. It can find you when you least expect it, even on the Strip. Las Vegas is pure boomtown, spreading into the desert in a constant invasion that lasts for miles. But the desert is a worthy adversary. It does not give up. Between the condos and the malls and the brand-new developments that seem to sprout up overnight, the Mojave is always there.
It was exactly what I needed tonight.
I chose my favorite spot—a small hollow in what, later in the day, would be the shade of a boulder—and sat down, letting the coat fall back behind me. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around them, and gazed upward. You have to know how to look to see the Vegas stars at night. But I was good at it. I ought to be. I did it often enough. A bittersweet pleasure, a test I insisted upon giving myself. I closed my eyes, then opened them again. The stars were still there, and so was my reaction to them.
Where are you tonight, Ash? I thought.
Ashford Donahue III, the man I loved. The vampire I hated. Just my luck that he was both. The first time I met him, I could have sworn the stars were in his eyes. The last time I saw him, he was walking out. He had sworn not to come back. If I wanted him, it was my move. And I hadn’t made it. Not in six long months. On nights like this, I wondered why. Nights like this made me want to forget the pain, the past, the blood. On nights like this, I still wanted Ash. The taste of his skin. The feel of his mouth.
“You shouldn’t be out here alone.” A voice in the darkness made me jump up; instinctively, I pulled out one of the sharp silver wands I wear in my hair. But I wasn’t frightened. What I felt, and tried hard to conceal, was a completely different emotion: joy.
Joy. Because Ash was here, with me in the darkness of the desert night. . . .
“Ash! What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded, trying to conceal the powerful feelings Ash provokes in me. Feelings I am not particularly proud of, by the way. I have fought against them over and over, long and hard. I’ve lost every single time.
“Do you have to ask?” he said, stepping out from around the boulder. “You’re starting to develop patterns, Candace. That can be dangerous, you know.”
I slid the silver wand back into my hair. There was no sense calling attention to it. I don’t think Ash knows what I do in my spare time. I hunt down vampires and kill them. Not just any vampires. The ones like Ash, who, by virtue of their high rank in the vampire hierarchy, feed on live human blood. He was the one who inspired this particular hobby, in fact. He once tried to drink mine. The truth is, I’m lucky to be alive.
“Do you watch me, Ash?” I asked now. “Is that what you’re saying? If I want you, I have to come to you, but in the meantime you like to watch?”
“No, Candace. That’s not what I like,” he said as he took a step closer. He was standing beside me now. In the predawn darkness, his eyes seemed to kindle with their own light.
“You want me to say it? All right: I want you. That’s why I watch you. That’s why I’m here. I’m willing to admit my need. I always have been. All you do is fight me.”
I felt a strange madness seize me then. Out in the desert, beneath the light of the stars. I took a step closer.
“And if I stopped fighting?” I asked, my voice low and husky. “Not forever. Just for tonight. What would you give me if I stopped fighting you, Ash?”
Almost before I finished speaking, he gave his answer. I think we both knew what it was going to be.
“Whatever you want.”
I took a second step, and then a third, our bodies now touching. “You,” I said. “I just want you. You’re all I’ve ever wanted.”
He bent his head, then put his mouth to mine, and the world exploded in a shower of sparks. Ash’s hands were on my breasts, trailing fire in their wake. There was no patience in his touch. Other nights were for explorations, for going slow. Not this one. On this night Ash and I desired one and the same thing: to take what we wanted.
He brought his hands together at the front of my T-shirt, fisted them, then tore the shirt apart. I wasn’t wearing a bra. Ash growled, low in his throat, filling his hands with my breasts like a greedy child. Pushing them together, then up toward his mouth. The action pulled me to my tiptoes. Another moment and I would lose my balance.
“Hold on to me, Candace,” I heard him gasp as the movement of his tongue shot fire straight down to my legs. “Hold on.”
I put my hands on his shoulders, and felt the world fall away as Ash lifted me, to lie me down. His hands were a blur of motion against the fastenings of my jeans, and then I felt the cool desert air on my legs as he drew the jeans down and off. The silk panties I wore went right along with them. I felt the rough texture of the wool coat against my skin. I lay back, gazing up at him. I was completely naked; Ash, completely clothed.
He leaned over me, bringing my lips to his for a lingering kiss, then stroking a hand straight down the center of my body. I watched it, a cool, pale white against my tanned skin, both saw and felt the way my body tightened at his touch. His fingers reached the triangle of curls between my legs, and he stopped, his eyes on mine. In them, a question. Slowly, my eyes never leaving his, I slid my legs apart, then bent my knees, tilting my pelvis up. Offering myself, opening myself to this lover as I did for no one else.
“What do you want, Ash?” I asked.
“Then take what you want.”
He leaned down, pulled my knees onto his shoulders, and kissed me, openmouthed. Tongue thrusting deep inside me, then sliding out to slick across my clit, fingers tightly gripping my butt. I writhed against him, all but helpless in my need.
“Ash,” I gasped out. “Ash, I want . . .”
I heard him laugh then. “I know what you want, my love. I always know what you want. The only problem is, you can’t always have it.”
He put his lips against my clit, then vibrated them wildly, even as his fingers slid inside me. In and out. In and out. Faster. Deeper. Harder and harder. Until I heard myself give a hoarse cry of pure pleasure. Felt my body arch up, pull taut. And then I was coming, the world shattering around me; the sky above, a sea of shooting stars.
I sat straight up in bed, my bedroom echoing with my own cries of passion. The sheets were a tangled mass at the end of the bed, my legs spread open, wide.
God, I thought. Oh, sweet, merciful Jesus.
I sat up, pulled my knees to my chest, hugged them tightly, and told myself I would not cry. A dream. It was only a dream, I chanted, over and over. So vivid, even in my own bedroom I believed it was real, a literal slice of my own life. The passion so potent, I had actually climaxed. But it was only a dream, a dream I had summoned up myself. Of passion fulfilled, and unfilled. Desire sated but never satisfied. After six long months of silence, six months of relative peace, I had awakened from a dream of Ash where all it had taken was just one look for me to throw myself back into his arms.
“I know what you want. The trouble is, you can’t always have it.”
As if I didn’t know. As if he hadn’t taught me that, himself.
Damn, damn, damn, I thought. You are not going to do this, Candace. Do you hear me? You are going to put a stop to this, right here. Right now!
I had wasted enough of my life agonizing over things I couldn’t have. It wasn’t a long list, but Ash was sure as hell at the very top. Well, I was finished with that bullshit behavior. Done. No more. I released my knees, swung my legs over the side of the bed, and stomped to my window and threw the curtains open. Bright morning sunlight streamed into the room, making my eyes water. I stayed at the window, gazing out upon the bright, clear winter day, until my eyes were dry as bone.
Only then did I turn away and set off down the hall. I’ll run a shower, I thought. As hot as I could stand. I would wash the dream of Ash from my body even if I had to scald it off. Then, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I would begin again. Build anew, again. Never mind that I had made myself such promises before. This time I would make them stick. I would make new choices, stick to my guns.
But even as I gave the hot-water faucet a vicious twist, I wondered: How could I build anew when my foundation was the same thing it had always been: a broken heart?