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By ROSEMARY LAUREY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Rosemary Laurey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere was something decidedly sneaky about skulking about the house in the middle of the night, but Toby Wise was hungry.
Hungry for the sweet warmth of her mortal blood and the glorious scent of her skin.
Too bad his overactive conscience was giving him such a difficult time. He was vampire. He fed off living mortals. He never harmed them and made certain they had no memory of the event. He'd managed quite nicely for the past century and a half or so. Taking mortal blood for sustenance was what vampires did.
Why was Laura Fox any different?
Because she was.
He paid her very well, along with the other nurses who took shifts to care for Piet Connor. The seemingly straightforward plan had been to feed off each of them in turn-necessary since in Oregon he lacked the connections to maintain a constant supply of blood bags. His scheme worked brilliantly until Laura Fox arrived.
After a vampire lifetime of detachment from his food source, Toby Wise had fallen hard and fast. If he had any survival instincts left, he'd replace her. Obviously survival wasn't as high a priority as it used to be. He couldn't bear the thought of not seeing her. He grudged her every day off and had to rein in his predatory urges to feed off her every single night she was in the house.
It had been four days, an extraordinarily long four days, and tonight he would indulge, sate his unruly self on the joy of her blood, delight in her soul, inhale the very essence of her being, satisfy every vampire instinct, and be consumed with guilt again at the end of it all.
Damn and double damn. Why in the name of Abel did she affect him this way?
He wasn't sure he wanted that one answered. He'd seen what happened to his colony fellows: Kit Marlowe, Justin Corvus, and Tom Kyd. One by one, they'd fallen in love and settled into domestic bliss-or at least the nearest vampire equivalent. Yes, they were very content, obviously happy, and delighting in their respective women. Heck, even ice lady Antonia had found herself a worthy mate.
He, Toby Wise, was thrilled for them, but that sort of lifestyle just wasn't his cup of tea. He'd been a loner since he was seven years old, the day his owner had thrown his mother to the ground and dragged a terrified Toby from her arms. Two days later he'd been sold and shipped off to a plantation in the low country of South Carolina. He'd never seen his mother or seven brothers and sisters again.
No, good friends he had aplenty, but close emotional connections were not for him.
On the other side of the smooth teak door, heartbeats measured two mortal lives. The slower pulse marked Piet Connor's grasp on his sadly limited existence. The other was strong, steady, and vibrant: the heartbeat of a healthy young woman. Toby listened; there was no movement inside. He waited, just to be sure, and slowly opened the door.
Laura was dozing in an easy chair across the room. The shaded light on the table beside her cast a pool of light that highlighted the glints in her auburn hair and cast odd shadows on her hands. She'd been reading a magazine when she nodded off and right now it slid over the smooth white fabric of her uniform. Toby crossed the room and caught the magazine before it hit the ground. No point in letting unnecessary noise disturb anyone. As he placed her copy of Cosmopolitan on the table, he smiled. Not exactly sedate reading, but much more fun than the tabloids Nurse Watson favored.
Not that Toby felt for efficient, friendly Nurse Watson a hundredth of the desire the mere thought of Laura stirred. A whisper of breath from her slightly parted lips caressed his hand. Her long eyelashes fluttered, brushing her cheeks. Her skin was the color of rich cream and the texture of silk.
He placed his hand on her head, willing her into deeper sleep, resting his fingers on her auburn curls until her breathing changed. Her hair felt different tonight, firmer somehow. Maybe she used one of those sprays or mousses they were always pushing on TV. A pity-he preferred her curls soft and silky so they curled around his fingers.
Yes, all very well, but he could hardly request she pick her shampoo and hair products to suit him! He did, however, permit himself to run his fingers through her hair before tilting her head to one side and loosening the top button to open her collar and expose the smooth, pale column of her neck.
The scent of skin and her firm, steady pulse had him ready. Very ready. His gums itched as his blood hunger rose. Leaning closer, he gently licked over the pulse at the base of her neck and pressed his lips to her skin. He bit carefully and precisely, as only a vampire could, and her blood rose to him. Sweetness, richness, life, and strength flowed from her as he absorbed the sustenance he needed. He drank slowly, very slowly, to prolong the pleasure while taking the least needed.
Her breathing quickened, her body tensed a little as her heartbeat sped. She let out a little sigh and leaned into him.
Talk about temptation!
As he wrapped an arm around her shoulder to hold her steady, he was only too aware of the wondrous warmth of her body, the glorious swell of her breasts and the scent of aroused woman. She was responding to his touch. Never before ... or had she and he'd refused to acknowledge? He slowed his tasting but kept his lips on her neck, needing the connection, the link with her mortality, relishing the few moments of intimacy. He held her close, reveling in her scent and warmth. He ran a hand over the curve of her breast and down her belly and back, wanting to feel her skin but knowing that would weaken his resolve. As his lips pulled on her blood, her body tensed more, her hips rocked, her breasts pressed against his arm. His mind joined hers, to share the joy he drew from her. Her heartbeat raced, but with pleasure, not fear. He gathered up his own satisfaction and let it wash over her, filling her mind with her own sweetness until she shuddered as a soft climax rippled through her.
He still held her, waiting until her body calmed and her heartbeat settled. Gently he took his lips away and licked the site of his bite. She'd heal fast and never know what she'd given him. He eased his arm away from her shoulders and stood. He dropped a kiss on her forehead, leaving a suggestion that she wake in fifteen minutes and make herself a cup of the mint tea she so enjoyed, before he disappeared into the shadows.
Toby heard Laura go down the hall to the kitchen in precisely fifteen minutes. She'd take her cup back to Piet's room and no doubt have a relaxed and peaceful night.
Which was more than he would.
He was strung tight with restlessness. He really should feed somewhere else next time but he knew he wouldn't. Laura Fox was a drug. A need. He'd keep her close. Protect her.
And right now, he'd better run or fly off some of his restlessness. He was here to work. To sort out the mess of Connor Inc. He might not need as much sleep as a mortal, but he did need his wits about him in the morning. He just hoped he'd have them all intact.
Laura Fox dropped a tea bag into a mug and poured on boiling water. She was thirsty, very thirsty in fact. She hadn't meant to fall asleep-after all, she was paid to watch Mr. Connor and take care of anything he needed-but doze off she had and as a result felt strangely energized and relaxed. Maybe power naps were as helpful as some people claimed. On the other hand, did power naps usually involve wildly erotic dreams about employers? Not that she'd complain. Mr. Toby Wise was pretty much the substance of dreams. Tall, good looking, with a Brit accent smooth enough to melt butter and darned considerate and courteous to boot.
Too damn bad she was committed to poking, prying and investigating him. Why the hell had she ever agreed?
Restored by Laura's unwitting gift, Toby was more than ready to face the morning. Things were going well. The irregular goings-on at Connor Inc. were either dismantled or disposed of. He'd done what Elizabeth Connor Kyd had asked of him, and had the pleasure of living once again on his native soil.
He looked up as the door opened. "The Feds are here?" he asked his secretary. He'd been expecting them but it didn't mean he had to welcome them.
"Yes, Mr. Wise." Sarah Wallace, the middle-aged and wonderfully efficient assistant he'd inherited with the rest of Connor Inc., twitched the corner of her mouth. "I can always stall them."
Not much point, really. He shrugged and grinned. "Send in the clowns!"
She permitted herself a smile. "Would you like an urgent transatlantic call in a few minutes?"
He would like a good chin wag with Tom Kyd about this but might as well find out what they wanted, or rather, knew. "Let's hear them out first. But how about you stay and take notes."
"Good idea, Mr. Wise. A witness never hurts, but say as little as possible without a lawyer present."
Good advice. Ms. Wallace was a godsend. As she swiveled on her sensible one-inch heels, he stopped her. "Just a sec. Have they ever been here before?"
Before he'd taken on the running of Connor Inc., he meant, and she understood. "There was one occasion, while Mr. Radcliffe was here."
"They stayed about ten minutes, left, and never came back...."
They probably were lucky to get out alive and without brain damage, given Laran's monstrous, unethical and hideous methods. If vampires had blood pressure, Toby's would be mounting, but as it was ... "Let's hope this visit will be as brief." With Sarah present, he couldn't use mind control. He should have thought of that before he asked her to stay but ...
There were two of them.
He really noticed only one. The younger, shorter, dark-skinned and very definitely female one: Agent Healy, whose slim navy skirt rose enticingly up her legs as she sat in the chair Sarah drew up for her. "Grace Healy" read the little rectangle of card on his desk. The other, Agent Randall Bright, looked anything but bright, but Toby had been around long enough not to let appearances deceive him. Bright was older, with a generous paunch, a florid complexion and large, strong hands.
Foolish mortal! He actually had the nerve to try the hard-squeeze handshake. Toby resisted the temptation to crush a few metatarsals but met grasp with grip, looking Agent Bright in the eye as he smiled and closed his fingers over the man's hand. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"You replaced Mr. Radcliffe?" Bright asked as he retrieved his slightly compressed hand.
"I did." A brief smile and look of helpful interest seemed in order here.
"You wouldn't know where we could locate him?" Agent Healy asked.
He would. The incinerated remains of Laran Radcliffe were in London-at the bottom of the Serpentine, or was it the Regents Canal? Never mind. She wanted an answer. "He was in England in March. He called Mr. Connor from somewhere in Devon and hasn't been heard of since."
He wouldn't have believed it either. Bright snorted. Healy just raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow. "Nothing?"
"Not a dicky bird!" Too late he remembered "dicky" might offend. It wasn't always easy communicating in his native land. Mind you, things had changed a bit since 1865. The fact that Grace Healy was an FBI agent rather underscored the fact. Back then, she'd have been picking cotton or, if very fortunate, gracing her owner's mattress.
"What about his pay? Bank accounts? 401(k)? He just left all that?"
"Yes. Since we have no record of a next of kin, we set up an escrow account, in case he reappears."
"You think that likely?" Bright asked.
"To be honest, no." Not unless ashes could reanimate.
"What makes you so sure, Mr. Wise?"
Toby turned to Agent Healy. "Because two members of my colony witnessed a witch destroy him" might be pushing credibility a trifle. "Because of the tangle he left behind him."
They obviously hadn't expected him to admit the existence of irregularities quite this early in the conversation. It was most likely a big mistake. But he'd just made it. Toby leaned back, letting his leather chair rock slightly. "When Laran Radcliffe departed, disappeared, absconded, or whatever, Mr. Connor's daughter, Elizabeth, hired me to sort things out."
"And you found ...?"
Toby made himself look at her but forbade himself to smile. "I'm not in a position to share details of company finances at this point." Not until he made damn sure Elizabeth's father was in the clear.
Agent Bright leaned over his paunch. "We could subpoena financial records."
"Yes, you could." And would have already if they had enough proof. "Hardly necessary since Connor Inc. is willing to cooperate." Toby smiled. Neither smiled back. "The financial records are in a pig's ear of a mess. We're in the middle of an internal audit. Once that's completed ..."
"You'll cooperate?" Agent Healy asked.
"Madam," Toby eyed the warm-coffee skin on the slim neck that rose out of the silk blouse. The scent of human flesh promised warm, rich blood. "I am cooperating-as far as I can in the circumstances. In a few weeks we should know the extent of the goings-on." After the auditors went over the sanitized accounts. It had taken Kit, Dixie and himself the better part of four days and no sleep to go over every computer in the company. The FBI agents were welcome to dig and delve to their mortal hearts' content. There was nothing to find.
"Meanwhile, perhaps we should speak to Mr. Connor." Agent Healy leaned forward.
Good luck to them! "You are aware he had a serious stroke."
"So it has been reported."
They doubted? Surely they'd checked hospital records. He shrugged. "I can only reiterate our willingness to cooperate and repeat what I said in my correspondence: Radcliffe's actions were totally unauthorized. Leave a list of what you want, and after I talk to our lawyers ..."
"We'd rather talk to Mr. Connor."
Toby restrained the scowl. Attractive or not, the woman was as persistent as a rooster on a hen-wrong simile, but accurate. "If you feel it necessary, by all means call his medical team and arrange a convenient time. But I warn you, he is in no physical or mental condition to answer questions. His inability to run the company was the reason Ms. Connor brought me in."
The both stood up. Exact timing perhaps, or did G-men and -women have secret communication?
"We'll be back in touch, Mr. Wise," Bright said and nodded to Agent Healy to leave.
As the door closed behind them, Toby turned to Ms. Wallace. "What did you make of that?"
"Odd," she replied. "I think they came to intimidate and get you sweating, and you played it cool. Congratulations!"
No matter what they did, they'd never get him sweating, but he wasn't sure congratulations were in order.
Toby drove back to the house on Devil's Elbow faster than was judicious on the twisting road, but an odd urgency propelled him: a niggling suspicion that those two FBI agents would arrive at the house and badger Piet Connor. Not that it would do them any good, and it might just prove his point that the man was way beyond answering their questions. On a good day Piet recognized his nurses and Toby. On a bad day ... Toby shook his head. He had only Elizabeth's word for the vital, intelligent and driven man her father had been before blind ambition and lust for power led him to ally himself with a renegade vampire who'd zapped his mind.
Toby had promised Elizabeth to look after her father and unravel the tangled mess of Connor Inc.
So far he'd dismantled the money laundering. It had necessitated closures and redundancies, but they had been needed to sever the links of Laran's nasty enterprise. And now ... Toby turned into the drive that led up to the Connors' clifftop house. This part of the country was so different from his native South Carolina-and he relished the difference. Even after almost a century and a half, memories of slavery still had him shuddering.
He eased the car to a stop before the automatic garage doors and pulled inside. Making himself walk at mortal speed, he strode through the house to where Piet Connor sat huddled in a wheelchair in the glazed-in porch. The man spent hours just watching the ocean.
"Hello, Piet," Toby said, bending down to be eye-to-eye with his shriveled body.
A faltering smile followed the light of recognition. "Hello, Toby. Is my Lizzie coming?"
"Soon," Toby replied. She'd promised to fly over for a week at the end of the month. He'd be darn glad to see her-and Tom. Tom Kyd had proved his friendship once again by fixing computer records and helping sort out the mess that had once been a thriving multinational conglomerate.
"I miss Lizzie," Piet Connor muttered. "Must say I'm sorry. Didn't mean ..." A tear trickled down his cheek as his voice faltered.
Excerpted from MIDNIGHT LOVER by ROSEMARY LAUREY Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Laurey. Excerpted by permission.
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