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By Amanda Ashley ZEBRA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Amanda Ashley
All right reserved.
Chapter One Most said it was going to be the end of the world as we knew it. Some said that was ridiculous, but those who weren't too busy or too blind to see the signs knew the truth. Mankind had been heading for this showdown ever since the preternatural creatures decided that, although they were small in number when compared to humans, they possessed the strength and the Supernatural power to pretty much run the planet any way they saw fit. And since the nations of the Earth had finally achieved universal peace, most of the world's armies had been drastically reduced or done away with altogether, leaving only local law enforcement agencies to protect the citizens, while national governments debated how to best handle a possible future threat.
In the last six months or so, there had been an escalating number of battles between the two major baddies-the Werewolves and the Vampires.
No one really knew who was winning the war. In the past, when the humans had made war, everyone knew who was winning. The number of casualties, both civilian and enemy, had been reported far and wide. Pictures of those killed in battle had appeared in newspapers, on television, and online. The nightly news had flashed brutal, graphic images of the dead and wounded being carried off the field of battle.
It was different with the Supernatural creatures. Their battles were fought inthe dark hours of the night in remote areas around the world. The bodies of the fallen were never found. The Vampire dead disintegrated in the sun's first light. The Werewolves were carried off by others of their kind; some said the dead were eaten so as to leave no trace.
Smart humans quickly learned two things: how to repel the preternatural folks, and how to stay out of their way. Those who weren't so smart usually ended up as someone's dinner. Except for a few reporters who had more curiosity than brains, human casualties had been few so far.
Of course, everyone knew that sooner or later, mankind would have to stand up and defend itself against whichever side won the war between the Werewolves and the Vampires, but until then, the smart thing to do was just stay out of the line of fire.
Being a pretty smart girl myself, I hightailed it out of the big city and took up residence in a small town in the Midwest, figuring there wasn't anything in Oak Hollow to attract either the Vampires or Werewolves. After all, the town wasn't big enough to appear on most maps, and since the Werewolves and the Vampires seemed to like bright lights and big cities, moving to a sleepy little community like Oak Hollow seemed like the perfect solution.
I bought a cute little house made of logs for practically nothing, opened a new and used bookstore on the corner of Third and Main, and figured I'd stay out of danger while the Werewolves and the Vamps killed each other off.
Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans....
Chapter Two I spent the next few weeks immersed in fixing up the bookstore. I painted one wall white and the other three a pale apple green. Since I had always loved movies, I put up some framed antique movie posters that I had collected over the years, along with some autographed movie stills. I bought some pretty potted plants and flowers and spread them out as artfully as I could along the tops of some of the bookshelves. I had a collection of stuffed teddy bears I'd had since I was a little girl. Digging them out of one of the boxes at home, I scattered them throughout the store and among the greenery on the shelves, along with an occasional decorative birdcage. I found a fancy automatic coffeemaker and a sturdy table to put it on, stocked up on colorful cups and napkins, and opened the store for business.
After three weeks and three customers, I was thinking maybe I had opened the wrong kind of enterprise for such a small town. Maybe people in rural areas didn't have time to read. Maybe I should have opened a pet store. At least then I would have had some company!
I called the writers' group in the next town to see about setting up a book signing in hopes of drawing customers into the shop.
The woman who answered the phone sounded doubtful that any of the authors in their organization would be willing to drive a hundred miles to sign autographs in such a remote location, but she said she would ask around and see if she could find any writers who lived closer to Oak Hollow. I thanked her for her time and hung up.
One day, out of sheer boredom, I painted a mural on the wall behind the counter. It started off as a flowering peach tree, its branches spreading out along the wall. But as the days went by, I painted a young girl sitting beneath the tree reading a book. Next, I added a gray squirrel on one of the branches, and then a little brown and white dog sleeping beside the girl, and then, in the distance, a fuzzy yellow duck floating on a small blue pond. It wasn't the Sistine Chapel by any means, but it was something to do to pass the time, and it wasn't too bad, for an amateur.
A few days later, while sitting at the malt shop trying to lift my spirits by indulging in a hot fudge sundae with double whipped cream, I overheard a couple of the townspeople talking. Normally, I don't approve of eavesdropping, but in this case it turned out to be highly informative. Apparently, the reason my chosen hideaway wasn't inhabited by Vampires or Werewolves was because it had been designated as neutral territory, a place where the baddies could get together without fear of attack when they needed to parley with one another. Apparently, Oak Hollow was the Switzerland of the Midwest.
I was getting ready to close the store a few nights later when the cheerful jingling of the bell over the door announced that someone had actually come into the shop. Looking up, I put on my best how-can-I-help-you smile, only to feel it slip away when I got a good look at my first customer in over a week. He was, in a word, magnificent, from the top of his black-thatched head to the polished tips of his expensive black leather boots.
I blinked up at him, all rational thought wiped from my mind as I stared at the Adonis striding toward me. He could have been the poster boy for handsome, with his dusky skin, chiseled features, strong jaw, and full, sensuous lips. Never in all my life had I seen such a drop-dead gorgeous guy.
He glanced around the store, and I could almost see him wondering how I stayed in business, since he was the only customer in the place.
With an effort of will, I managed to stop staring at him long enough to ask if I could be of help.
His gaze moved over me in a way that made me feel as if he had just finished a seven-course gourmet meal and I was dessert.
I had never actually met a Vampire before, but I realized with a sudden jolt that I was looking at one now, although I had no idea how I knew. He was tall, at least three inches over six feet, and solid. As might be expected, he wore nothing but black-black silk shirt, black jeans that hugged a pair of long, muscular legs, and a black leather jacket that covered a pair of broad shoulders. All that black went well with his hair and his eyes. I don't recall ever seeing anyone who had black eyes before, but his were like pools of ebony ink, deep and dark and mesmerizing. I wanted to dive to the bottom and never come up.
Being in the same room with one of the Undead, breathing the same air, made me decidedly uncomfortable. I took several deep breaths, hoping it would calm my nerves. It didn't.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" I asked, pleased that my voice didn't betray my uneasiness.
"I was hoping you could recommend something." His voice, as deep and mesmerizing as his eyes, danced over my skin.
It had never occurred to me that Vampires liked to read, or do much of anything except wear black, drink blood, and spend the daylight hours resting in their coffins.
"What do you like?" I asked. "Mysteries, suspense, sci-fi ...?"
He shrugged. "Have you read any good books lately?"
"Me?" I was unaccountably pleased that he had asked for my opinion. "Well, yes, I thought the latest Jordan Montgomery mystery was his best one to date."
He nodded. "I'll take it." Aware of his gaze on my back, I hurried to the mystery section and plucked a copy from the shelf.
"That'll be twenty-seven fifty," I said, ringing up the sale.
Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a crisp fifty-dollar bill. His fingers were cool when they brushed mine, yet I felt a frisson of heat race all the way up my neck to warm my cheeks. I slid the book and the receipt into a sack, also hand painted by me, and handed it to him, along with his change.
"Might I know your name?" he asked.
I hesitated to give it. I'm not really into Supernatural stuff all that much, but I knew that names were powerful mojo.
His gaze locked with mine, and I found myself saying, "Kathy. Kathy McKenna."
"A lovely name for a very lovely lady," he murmured, bowing from the waist. "I hope to see you again."
"Are you going to tell me your name?" I asked. Hey, it only seemed fair that I should know his name now that he knew mine.
"Ah, of course. I am Raphael Cordova."
I stared at him. Raphael Cordova! Good grief. He was the leader or chief or whatever they called it of the North American Vampires.
He smiled, displaying remarkably even, white teeth. "I will see you again, Kathy McKenna."
I wasn't sure if that was a threat or a promise, but before I could ask, or think of a suitable reply, he was gone, as silent as a shadow running from the sun.
The night after Raphael's visit, thirteen people stopped by the store. They didn't just come in because they were curious or to browse, either. They came in to buy. Every one of them bought at least two books; one lady bought four, another bought nine.
I'm not sure when I realized that they had all come into the store after the sun had set, or exactly when I realized they were all Vampires, and that Raphael Cordova had probably sent them. I guess I should have been pleased. Instead, it annoyed me to think that he had rounded up a bunch of his Undead pals and ordered them to throw a little business my way. I didn't need anyone feeling sorry for me, thank you very much. And I certainly didn't want to be beholden to a Vampire for anything.
I had a feeling he would show up later that night, and he did, just as I was about to close up shop. He was clad in unrelieved black again-a short-sleeved T-shirt that emphasized his broad shoulders and muscular arms, another pair of tight jeans, and a pair of scuffed cowboy boots. Just looking at him made me feel good all over.
He inclined his head in my direction. "Good evening, Kathy McKenna." His voice was just as I remembered: soft and low; it caressed my skin like warm, dark velvet.
"Come for another book, did you?" I asked ungraciously.
"As a matter of fact, I did," he replied with a faint smile.
"Don't tell me you finished the other one already." Montgomery novels tended to be long; his newest book was almost nine hundred pages.
"What are you, a speed reader?"
"Not exactly," he replied with a wry grin, "but sometimes the nights can be long."
I was tempted to say, "no kidding," but I restrained myself. "I guess you enjoyed it."
"Yes, very much, which is why I'm here. I'd like to buy everything he's written."
"You might want to narrow that down a little," I said drily. "Jordan Montgomery has written something like fifty books in the last twenty years."
"I'll take whatever you have on hand," Raphael said. "And please order me the rest."
"You don't have to buy all those books just because you feel sorry for me," I said waspishly. "And you didn't have to tell your friends to come in here, either."
"Ah," he murmured, a guilty smile twitching at the corners of his lips. "Don't tell me they all came tonight?"
"I don't know about that, since I don't know how many you asked to show up," I replied, and then, as my exasperation faded, I wondered what was going on that there were so many Vampires in town at one time, which made me wonder if that meant an equal number of Werewolves were also prowling the dark streets. The thought sent a cold chill slithering down my spine.
I glanced out the window, wondering if the moon was full, and if it was safe to walk home now that the town was full of Vampires and Werewolves. Funny that they were enemies. You'd think they would go hunting together, I thought morbidly, since one drank blood and the other devoured flesh.
"What? Oh, right, the books." I walked toward the back of the store where the mysteries were shelved, acutely aware that Raphael was following me. I wasn't sure I liked having a Vampire, even a remarkably sexy, handsome one, at my back. Or anywhere else in the vicinity, for that matter.
I had sixteen of Montgomery's backlist in stock, all in hardback. Assuming Cordova read a book a night, I figured I wouldn't be seeing him again for a couple of weeks. The thought left me feeling curiously depressed, but I told myself it was a good thing. After all, who needs a Vampire hanging around?
He helped me carry the books to the front of the store, then handed me his credit card. I stared at it for a moment. Somehow, I had never imagined that Vampires carried credit cards. Apparently, I had a lot to learn about the ways and means of the Undead.
I quickly rang up the books and gave him a copy of the receipt to sign. His signature was a bold scrawl across the bottom of the paper.
I loaded the books into four shopping bags and pushed them across the counter. "Happy reading."
"Thank you." He started to turn away, then hesitated. "Would you care to have dinner with me some evening?"
I stared at him, my mind filling with images of Raphael Cordova bending over me, his fangs poised at my throat. "No, I don't think so."
"I didn't ask you to be dinner," he said with a knowing grin. "But if the thought of dining with me makes you uncomfortable, perhaps we could go out for a drink." He held up a hand, silencing the protest he must have read in my eyes. "No blood involved."
As much as I hated to admit it, I was tempted. I hadn't been out on a date in almost six months. I didn't know anyone else in town. And Raphael Cordova intrigued me more than any man I had ever met. But still ... what was the point in dating a Vampire? I opened my mouth to say, "No, thank you," so you can imagine my surprise when I heard myself say, "Yes, I'd like that."
"Tomorrow night, perhaps?"
"All right." Tomorrow was Thursday. I closed the shop at seven during the week, at nine on Fridays and Saturdays. I was closed on Sundays, like every other business in town except for the gas station/mini-mart located over on Ninth Street, which was open 24-7.
"Shall I pick you up here, or at your home?"
"Here will be fine," I said, uncomfortable at the thought of letting a Vampire know where I lived.
"Until tomorrow night, then." He smiled at me, then left the store.
I stared after him, wondering what I was getting myself into.
Chapter Three I woke up Thursday morning feeling jittery inside, a condition that grew steadily worse with each passing tick of the clock. I took a long shower, spent half an hour applying my makeup and doing my hair, and another twenty minutes trying to decide what to wear. Since Raphael was picking me up at the store, I wouldn't have time to come home and change for our date later. In the end, I settled on a pair of white slacks and a green turtleneck sweater that made my eyes look a shade darker than they were. I wondered if Raphael liked green eyes. The word Vampire whispered through my mind, sending me to my jewelry box where I kept a gold crucifix, not because I was Catholic, but because crosses were supposed to repel Vampires. I had worn it constantly in New York, but it hadn't seemed necessary here in Oak Hollow until I met Raphael.
I fastened the chain around my neck, then took a last look in the mirror, wishing my hair was curly and black instead of long and straight and blond. I slipped into my comfy work shoes, grabbed a pair of white high-heeled sandals to change into for my date with the Undead, scooped up my handbag and my keys, and headed to the bookstore.
To my surprise, I had several ordinary customers that afternoon.
Excerpted from NIGHT'S MASTER by Amanda Ashley
Copyright © 2008 by Amanda Ashley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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