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Playing With Fire
By CYNTHIA EDEN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Cindy Roussos
All rights reserved.
It was hard for Cassandra Armstrong to love a man who didn't remember her.
It was even harder to walk into the seediest paranormal bar that existed on the backstreets of Chicago and discover said man in the arms of some trashy vamp.
Cassie's eyes narrowed as she stared at Dante. He was in the back corner, probably trying to hide in the shadows, except the guy wasn't exactly the type to blend well.
Too big. Too dangerous. Too sexy.
And that vamp had her fangs way too close to his throat for Cassie's peace of mind.
Cassie shoved her way through the crowd, muttering apologies as she bumped into the various paranormal beings—and the humans—who filled Taboo. A few years ago, the paranormals had stopped pretending they didn't exist and gotten wild with their coming out party. Since then, clubs like Taboo had popped up in all the major cities in the U.S. and around the world.
Dante stood against the back wall. The vampire, a woman with long red hair and a way-too-short skirt, had her hands all over him. Blood-red nails, of course. Typical. The redhead was arching up on her toes and putting her mouth close to Dante's neck.
"Okay. You're just going to need to get away from him" Cassie snapped as she closed in on them.
The vampire froze.
Dante tilted his head to the side and glanced curiously over at Cassie. Was there any recognition in his dark gaze?
Of course not. To him, she could have been any stranger off the street.
Don't let it hurt. Don't. Dante couldn't help what he was.
But he could get the hell away from that trashy vamp.
The vampire spun toward Cassie and hissed.
Wait. Hissed, really? Cassie barely controlled an eye roll.
"Get lost" the vamp told her, baring her fangs. "He's mine."
Think again. Cassie's hands were clenched into fists, and it took all of her self-control not to swing out at the chick.
"No, he's not." Said very definitely. She looked past the vampire. "Dante, we need to leave."
That's right. I know your name. Why oh why can't you know something about me? Anything?
But that was the way it always was for them.
Cassie kept holding Dante's gaze. "Trust me on this. You don't want her sinking those fangs into you."
His blood was special, and rather addictive to vampires. If the redhead got one sip, she wouldn't be backing away from him anytime soon.
Then I'd have to stake her. Oh, what a pity.
"Dante, we can—" Cassie's words ended in a gasp.
The vampire had lunged forward and wrapped her hand around Cassie's throat. With that one hand, the vampire lifted her off her feet. "Maybe I'll just sink my fangs into you, bitch." Then she leaned her head in close to Cassie and whispered, "Because no one gets between me and my meal."
"Y-you ... don't ... want ..." Cassie tried to choke out the words but it was hard to speak, um, what with the vamp actually choking her and all. She was trying to tell the redhead ... You don't want to put your fangs in me. That would be a huge mistake.
But the vamp wasn't giving her the time to talk.
"Let her go." Dante's voice. Cold. Flat. And as deliciously deep as she remembered.
The vampire's eyes narrowed as she stared at Cassie with a mix of disgust and rage. "You're right. We don't need her. We don't—"
"I said ... let her go." The threat in Dante's voice had goose bumps rising on Cassie's arms. "And I meant do it now."
The vamp dropped her.
Cassie landed on her ass.
Figured. She'd never been the graceful type.
The redhead turned toward Dante. "Ready to leave?" she purred to him.
Purring. Hissing. The vamp was so annoying.
"You leave." Dante sent her a look that could have frozen a desert. "I'm not done here."
"And I'm not your fucking meal," he added, a touch of heat whipping through his words.
So he had heard that part. Cassie had thought his enhanced hearing would pick it up.
The redhead glared at Dante, then at Cassie. There was a promise of retribution in the vamp's eyes.
Ah, yes, another day, another enemy. Cassie swallowed and rose slowly to her feet.
"I'll see you again," the vampire murmured. The words were directed at Cassie, and they sure sounded like a threat.
Wonderful. As if she needed any more threats in her life.
Then the vampire was gone. Probably off to find another meal.
"Who are you?" His voice was a low rumble of sound, one that sent a few more shivers dancing over her skin. Maybe some people—okay, most people—would find that deep rumble scary.
To her, it was sexy. Because of Dante, she'd always had a thing for men with deep voices.
She squared her shoulders and stared up at him. "Did you burn again?" She'd seen him just a few months before in New Orleans.
He'd saved her life then. Had actually seemed to remember her ...
But there was no recognition on his face now.
She stared up at him. Those high cheekbones, that square jaw. The firm lips that she'd never seen smile, despite all of her attempts to make him happy. His eyes were dark, so dark they appeared almost as black as the thick hair that hung a little too long and grazed the back of his shirt.
Those eyes were watchful, guarded, as they swept over her. "Burn?" Dante repeated carefully.
In the next second, he lunged forward—his move faster than the vamp's had been. His hand—big, strong, hot — wrapped around her arm and pulled her close against his chest. "Now just how the hell would you know about that?"
Cassie wasn't as tall as the redhead. Not even close. She was barely skirting five foot five, so she had to tilt her head back to hold his gaze. Dante was at least six foot three, and the guy was built along some very muscled dimensions.
His hold tightened. "Answer me."
His fingers seemed to heat even more, and she knew his power was coursing through his blood. If she wasn't careful, he might burn her. Just how much control would he have then?
"Please." Cassie kept her voice even with an extreme effort. "I'm not here to hurt you." No, she was there to beg for his help. If he'd remembered her, even a little, that begging would have gone over much better.
Since he seemed to not know her at all ...
His gaze swept over face, then ... narrowed on her mouth. His left hand lifted, and his index finger reached out and lightly touched her lower lip.
Cassie stopped breathing. Her body was far too tuned to his. The man had pretty much ruined her for any other guy.
Not that Dante was a man. He was much, much more.
That was the name he'd been given during his captivity. A captivity that she had been a part of.
His finger lightly grazed across her bottom lip. Just that touch had her nipples tightening and her whole body aching for him. But it wasn't the time. Definitely not the place. She had a mission to complete.
His head bent toward her, and Cassie wondered if Dante was about to kiss her. She even arched up to meet him halfway.
But he shook his head, and his hand fell back to his side.
So much for the moment.
Cassie cleared her throat. "The burn must be fresh. Your memory usually comes back within a week or so after your rising."
His face seemed to turn to stone.
Usually was the keyword. Dante had been through so much in the last few years that his memory was a very brittle thing. So was his sanity, a situation that made him a walking, talking nightmare for many.
"You must have been attacked," she whispered. Attacked ... and killed. Because death was the only way—
He lifted her up and tossed her over his shoulder.
Cassie yelped, totally not expecting that move. She shoved her hands against his ass—um, a very nice ass — and pushed herself up so she could see around her.
Some of the club's patrons were looking at her, amusement on their faces. They weren't exactly the kind to help a lady in distress. The redheaded vampire was staring her way. Glaring her way, rather.
And Dante was stalking away with her, his grip on her legs unbreakable.
Okay, so that was one way to get his attention.
She heard the sound of shattering wood. Had he just smashed a door? Sounded like he had. Cassie tried to crane around and see where they were going. It looked like they were headed inside some kind of back room. Stacks of boxes and bottles of alcohol lined the shelves.
"Get the hell out of here!" Dante's snarled order.
Three bodies ran past her, fast.
The world spun a bit, and Cassie found herself sprawled on top of a wooden table. Dante held one of her wrists in each of his hands as he stood between her legs.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"My name won't matter to you." She barely breathed the words. "If you rose recently—"
"C-Cassie Armstrong. Cassandra ..."
His eyelids flickered. "Cassandra." He said her name as if he were tasting it.
Please, remember me. There had been so many times over the years, when she was sure that he did remember her, but then the tortures would start again. Torture and death.
He'd lose the memory of her, and she'd have to try so hard to get close to him again. To make him remember.
An endless cycle that left her hurting inside.
"I've dreamed about you," he whispered. His hold was an unbreakable grip on her wrists.
At his confession, her heartbeat picked up and hope blossomed inside of her. Finally, finally, he'd—
"In my dreams"—a muscle flexed along his jaw —"you kill me, Cassie Armstrong."
Oh, hell. "I told you. I'm not here to hurt you."
"But you have killed me before, haven't you?"
Cassie knew she had to be careful. She wasn't like him. Dante could die, again and again, but he would just come back from each death.
He'd rise from the ashes and be born again.
While she would just—well, die. There would be no coming back for her.
With a thought, he could incinerate her. The heat that warmed her skin could turn into a blazing inferno at any second.
"Last night, I dreamed about you." His words were a low growl as he leaned closer to her.
The noise from the bar drifted into the room. The blaring beat of music. The scents of sex, blood, and booze.
"You stared right at me, then you stabbed me."
His bad memories weren't going to make things any easier.
"So maybe you should tell me why I shouldn't just pay you back for that right now." His breath blew lightly over the sensitive skin of her neck. "And end you."
She shook her head, sending her long hair sliding over her shoulders. "Please ..."
"Oh, I like it when you beg."
Actually, he did. But that was another story.
"So you've had dreams." Cassie started talking, fast, because she had seen him incinerate a man before. She didn't want that same fate. "Well, I'm your key. I know you. Every dark spot in your mind? I can shine the light and show you—"
His mouth was just inches from hers. Inches? More like an inch. "What are you going to show me?"
"Everything," she whispered, promised. "I can tell you the secrets of your life. I can tell you who you are, if you'll just trust me."
His gaze searched hers. Some people thought that his eyes were just dark—mirroring his black soul, but they were wrong. There were flecks of gold hidden in his eyes. You just had to look hard and deep enough to see them.
"Why should I trust a woman who's killed me before?"
"Because I've saved you, too." She'd risked so much to save him. "Believe it or not, you actually owe me."
"I don't believe it."
Her lips trembled.
His gaze dropped once more to her mouth.
He kissed her.
She hadn't been expecting the move, and when his lips closed over hers, shock froze her for a moment. Then she realized—Dante.
Her lips parted eagerly for him, and the wall that she'd built to hold back her need for him started to fracture. His tongue pushed into her mouth. Not sampling, but taking, and it was just like she remembered. He kissed her, she wanted. Lust tore through her, and her wrists twisted in his grip because she wanted to touch him.
His head lifted. His eyes blazed down at her, the gold starting to heat. "I remember ... your mouth. Your taste."
She'd never been able to forget his kiss. He'd been the first man that she ever kissed. The first to make her feel like she belonged to someone.
A someone who sometimes seemed to hate her.
"You can trust me" she whispered, desperate to make him believe her.
He gave a hard shake of his head. "No, that's the last thing I can do." He moved away from her, leaping back.
For an instant, she didn't move. His eyes were on her, sweeping from the top of her hair down to her small sandals. He seemed confused. Yeah, well, so was she.
Don't kiss me and jerk away. She didn't have the damn plague.
"I woke up a week ago," he told her quietly, his voice still making her ache. "In an alley that had been scorched. I was naked, and there were ashes all around me."
Her heart beat faster as she straightened on the table.
"What happened to me?" he demanded.
"Is that my name?"
The memory loss seemed more severe than it had been in the past. "Y-yes. That's what you told me to call you." But was it really his name? She wasn't sure. He'd never confessed too much about his life—at least, not his life before he'd come to be a prisoner.
"How did I get in that alley?"
She pushed away from the table. Her knees were trembling so she locked them as she faced him. "I don't know. The last time I saw you, you were down in New Orleans."
A faint furrow appeared between his brows. He appeared to be a man in his prime, maybe close to thirty-four or thirty-five, but the truth was that Dante was much, much older.
There was a reason he'd been called the Immortal at the facility.
"New Orleans?" He yanked a hand through his hair. "What was I doing down there?"
That was an easy answer. "Saving my life."
His hand fell. Suspicion was on his face as he asked, "Are you sure I wasn't trying to kill you?"
Actually, no, she wasn't. But she was still breathing, and if he had truly wanted her dead, she'd be ash.
His enemies had a way of ending up as ash drifting in the wind.
"What happened to me in the alley?"
Okay, if she was going to get his trust, she was obviously going to have to share with him. "I think you died."
He laughed. The sound was bitter and hard, just like the laughter she'd heard from him a dozen times. She'd tried for years to get a real laugh from him. That hadn't happened.
"If I died," he asked, "then how am I breathing now?"
That was the tricky-to-explain part. "Look, Dante—"
Shouts erupted from the other room. High-pitched, desperate screams that were immediately followed by the rat-a-tat of gunfire.
They found me. Cassie's heartbeat froze in her chest then she was the one leaping forward and grabbing Dante's hand. "We have to go. Now!"
She yanked him, hoping he'd follow with her.
He didn't move. Not even an inch. "I don't run from anyone."
Well, yes, that was true. He didn't.
She did. When you weren't a paranormal powerhouse, you learned to flee pretty quickly.
More screams. More blasts from guns. "If they catch me," Cassie said, voice soft, "they won't let me get away."
His gaze held hers.
"If they catch you, they're going to toss you back in a cage, and you won't see daylight again anytime soon." Her heartbeat seemed to thunder as loud as the gunshots. He had to believe her. "They'll keep you in that cage, and they'll torture you again and again."
"How do you know this?"
She licked her dry lips. "Because that's what they did to you before."
His jaw hardened. "Then I think it's time I faced these bastards."
Wait—what? Hadn't she been trying to sell the guy on running?
He pulled from her and rushed toward the broken door, heading right toward the sound of gunshots and screams.
As she watched him run away, her heart iced. She'd followed Dante to Chicago because she'd needed him. She'd hunted for him, searching desperately ... and she'd led his enemies right to his side.
Dante, I'm sorry.
But he wouldn't believe that apology. He never did.
Men wearing black ski masks had rushed inside of Taboo. The drumming music had died away, and only the screams of those still trapped in the club remained.
Most of the patrons had run away. Those wounded on the floor appeared to be mostly vampires. It seemed they were fine with walking amongst the humans these days. There were shifters, too.
Dante hadn't felt even mild surprise when he'd seen a man shift into the form of a fox just the night before. Maybe it was because his memories were gone that he felt no surprise. It seemed that vampires and shifters were a normal part of the world.
Excerpted from Playing With Fire by CYNTHIA EDEN. Copyright © 2014 Cindy Roussos. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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