Read an Excerpt
The asphalt blurred under Bella's running shoes as she abandoned her casual evening jog for a lung-bruising sprint. In the tropical humidity this sweltering midsummer night, her chest, back and face dripped with sweat.
Aware of the frenzied breaths close in her wake, she forced herself to push through the pain of exertion.
Escape. Don't let them get you.
She wasn't familiar with this neighborhood, yet she knew it formed the line of demarcation where the suburbs met the industrial north side of the Twin Cities. Not the best jogging spot for a lone young woman, especially with the streetlights out of order. The only light came from the distant neon of a string of nightclubs that peeked between four- and five-story warehouses.
Taking a long stride and ignoring her burning hamstrings, she made the curb. Thank God, she hadn't slipped. They'd be on her. To rob her or bite her or
What were they? They had teeth. Long teeth. They had snarled and flashed fangs.
When she'd taken off running, they'd given her a head start, laughing, as a group of men will do when they wish to frighten a woman. She'd prayed they would simply stand there, not pursue her. But that prayer hadn't been answered.
Close by, the ta-thum, ta-thum of a train rolling over the iron track matched the heavy labor of her heartbeats.
She'd never be able to outrun them. But maybe hide?
To her right, a dark warehouse beckoned. The three-story structure mastered the corner of the block. The double-wide door gaped, a black maw.
Bella dashed inside.
Too late, she realized her mistake. She'd trapped herself. The entire block was dark. Who would hear her scream?
Lungs heaving, she struggled to stay upright on her shaky legs.
Darkness nudged up against her shoulders, making it difficult to even make out the walls around her. The windows were like glass-toothed open mouths against the dark sky. Dark masses of bulky objectsstacked, like lumberforced her to tread carefully.
Her running shoe crunched on a loose board and she wobbled. Arms groping through the air, she swung blindly to stave off a fall. But equilibrium abandoned her.
Before she could hit the concrete, strong hands caught her about the waist and tugged her into darkness.
A man holding her breathed heavily, as if from exertion, like her. Warm breath wafted over her face. He smelled strongly masculine. Earthy. He was not one of her fanged pursuers. Yet she couldn't immediately determine if he was exactly a safe harbor.
His strong arms clasped about her arms and across her back. He took a step, dragging her deeper into the darkness. A boarded-up window, six feet to her left, admitted thin shafts of spare moonlight.
A piece of rough wood tore across her shoulder and a sliver snagged her T-shirt. Bella struggled. "Let me go. Who are you?"
"I've saved you from those wild idiots outside. No thanks?"
"If you let me go."
His nose brushed across her forehead, as if taking in her scent. "I don't think so."
His intense actions now frightened her more than being chased. Arms tight about her body, he studied her, as she did him. Face a breath from hers. Aggressive stance. Shoulders squared and hips firmly placed. He was twice as wide as she and a head higher. All brawn and muscle. Bigger than the many male dance partners she'd performed with over the years.
The thick muscles in his arms pulsed against her shoulders, squeezing her uncomfortably. He chuckled through his nose and continued his sniffing trail over her face, drawing down near her ear.
Repulsed, Bella squirmed, seeking a means to break the binding hold. Just as she felt a scream rise, a palm smacked over her mouth. She twisted her head, but he pressed so hard, her lips flattened against her teeth.
"Shh, pretty one." Her captor's voice was soothing and deep. It sounded far too nicetoo attractivefor a man who might harm her. "They're here, preening about the doorway. You want me to release you and see how you fare with three instead of one? I bet they'll take turns."
A reedy moan escaped her throat.
Strong yet cautioning fingers dug into her bicep. "Listen."
Tears burning in her eyes, Bella listened. The three men entered the building, slowly, cautiously, their light footsteps landing randomly on two-by-fours scattered on the floor.
They'd all been taller than her; most men did rise over her five-foot-four frame. Dressed in black and looking more than a little Goth, the lanky trio oozed menace.
The supple thickness of her captor's leather jacket crushed her breasts and belly as he pressed his torso against hers. His solid muscles hugged her everywhere. Trapping her. Threatening her with each slight move he made.
A flicker of prudence cautioned her to remain still. Make no noise. Yet Bella slowly moved her fingers over the rough wood behind her. Must be a stack of pallets. If she could find a nail to use as a weapon
A thin ray of moonlight struck the corner of her captor's forehead, illuminating dark hair slicked back from his forehead and over his ears. There was a pale shimmer in the one eye she could make out. Dark brown, wild and surrounded by shadowed flesh.
Had she stumbled into the arms of a homeless man? But he didn't reek of alcohol or body odor.
Still, she couldn't budge, and the hand over her mouth hurt.
A tinny clatter ratcheted up her heartbeats. Someone nearby stepped across the debris.
They would hear her thundering heart, she feared.
The man who held her forcefully nudged his nose along her cheek. His hot tongue dashed out to lick up a tear that fell down her cheek.
Though she wanted to retch, to scream, to kick out and fight for her life, Bella could only swallow the horror and pray she did not make a noise that would bring the others upon her. Four attackers would be unthinkable.
She heard feet shuffle nearby, and then a pallet of boards fell, nearly deafening her. The crash of wood connecting with Sheetrock released the odor of chalk. Apparently her would-be attackers were throwing things about.
"Where the hell did she get to?"
"Cool your heels, dude. She's in here somewhere."
A whimper tickled Bella's throat. Clenched tighter by her captor, she winced. Now both his eyes were visible in the slash of light, warning, teasing in a darkly macabre way.
He wouldn't toss her out to the others, would he? She sought his eyes to find the answer to that worry, but he tilted his head to listen.
"Did she run out the other side? The whole place is wide-open. Check that exit, will you?"
A wide hand explored her body from her back and around to her chest, slowly, without sound. When he squeezed her breast, she bit away a scream. A swallow put back the bile rising in her throat. Now he pressed his hand so hard to her mouth, his finger lay across her teeth.
"So sweet," he whispered in the calmest, most dreadful tone. "Your fear arouses me."
Woozy darkness toyed with her brain. Don't pass out. She had to stay alert.
Or would it be better if she didn't know how this night might end? Her life hadn't flashed before her eyes yet, so did that mean there would be only torture and pain?
Come on, Bella, she coached inwardly. Where's your usual cheery optimism? You are safe. Just remain in this man's arms.
Nausea coiled in her gut. When her leg muscles gave out, her captor tilted a hip into her to press her against the stacked pallets.
"Hold on, sweet," he murmured. "They may be hungry for your blood, but they can't scent a skunk in a garden."
Hungry for her blood? Did that mean they were
No. Thingscreatureslike that didn't exist. They were a gang of wild, drunk men out to torment a woman.
The fingers at her breast found her nipple. It hardened at his touch. She was not aroused. It was the fear heightening her reaction to every touch, sound and smell.
A hard pinch snapped her thoughts to the moment.
"Stay with the program, sweet," he muttered. "They're at the other end of the warehouse. They'll give up soon, I'm sure."
She mumbled behind his hand, and he pressed hard but then relented. "Quiet. Or it's your funeral."
When he took his fingers from her mouth, it felt as if they were still there. She wriggled her lips and opened her aching jaw.
Startled at his suggestion, she realized he must smell the drink on her breath. But how could he? She'd had one during an afternoon meeting with a potential client. That had been six hours earlier. Of course, she hadn't eaten since.
"Wh-what are they?" she managed.
He shoved her head against his chest, which effectively muffled her utterance.
"Vampires," he murmured. "And they're hungry."
She'd gotten that impression the moment the one had flashed his fangs at her. This was so wrong. She didn't believe in vampires.
She struggled, but he quickly clasped her wrists before her. "They'll circle the building and roam the area. You're not safe yet, sweet, so keep calm. You can do that, yes?"
She nodded, conceding silently. He seemed willing to keep her protected and unseen, but why? For his own evil intentions?
"Mmm, but can I?" He again sniffed at her hair. A dodge of his head placed his mouth at her jaw. He licked it.
"I'm going to be sick," she whispered, hoping it would dissuade him.
Footsteps slapping the pavement outside the window alerted her. Her captor again pressed her head against his chest, smothering her breath against the warm, rough-woven sweater he wore beneath the jacket. He held her so fiercely, she thought he might break a bone. One of her bones.
"Here, pretty, pretty," came a voice from outside. A low whistle teased the evening air.
The sound pinched Bella's heart, like a stretched spring snapping to a coil.
He was right. They circled the building. How long would they prowl the area before giving up? Could she keep from crying out when in the arms of another man who meant her harm?
A low growl, which sounded more like satisfaction than warning, preceded the press of his leg against her hip. He had an erection. The utter and sickening wrongness rent Bella's soul.
"Let's head back," someone outside shouted. "We'll find another."
Bella's spine straightened, her hope lifting.
"Give them five minutes," the man said. "Then they'll be far enough off for you to run."
"You'll let me go?"
"Of course. You don't think I'd take you right here in this dump?"
" He'd said he'd let her go. The deal had been made. She wouldn't argue beyond it.
"I have your scent in my nose, sweet. No matter how far you run, I'll find you."
"No, please. You've saved my life."
"I've merely prevented you from getting raped and your neck torn to shreds. I suppose you do owe me, though."
And she could imagine what he'd desire as reward.
"You impress me, mortal." His grip on her loosened, but still his torso held her pinned against the pallets. "Other women would have pissed their pants in your situation. Are you so brave, or somehow beyond fear?"
She breathed through her nose, fighting her raging heartbeats. Her forehead dropped to his chest. So weak. Just
exhausted, and yes, beyond fear.
He'd called her mortal.
Bella curled her fingers into his sweater. "Are you like them?" she asked, not knowing where the question came from. Nervous energy. Macabre fascination.
"A vampire?" His chuckle vibrated against her forehead. "Human blood does nothing for me."
That didn't exactly answer her question. Bella leaned back, her head lolling across the wood pallets. She pressed her hands to his chest as a means to keep from collapsing.
"They've gone far enough now. Their scent is weak."
" Stress softened her voice to a whisper. "You can smell their distance?"
"Yes. Your fear is subsiding. Next will come shock or collapse. You'd best be off before you find you cannot move at all."
"Thank you." Yet another strange utterance when what she really wanted to do was kick the bastard and scream at him.
He stepped away, but they were wedged between stacks of pallets, and that kept him close enough to touch. Moving right, she tested his promise to allow her to leave. And when she tried the ground with her foot to see if it would be sure, a hand grasped her wrist and pulled her to him.
He wasn't going to let her leave!
"I'll take my reward before you flee."
He crushed his mouth to hers with a violent and urgent kiss. It hurt, and it wasn't kind. But her mouth was already numb.
He pulled her into an embrace that lifted her feet from the floor and clasped her body against his like a monster picking up a child and ripping off its head.
But he didn't harmher. Instead, he groaned with pleasure.
Suddenly setting her down and pushing her away, he twisted his head and shook it fiercely, like a dog shaking off rain. "Go!"
She didn't need to be told twice. Sliding her hands along the boards to guide her, Bella found the doorway where she had entered.
"Go north," she heard him say. "They went south." North, then. And she took off running.
Shoulders pressed to the pallets behind him, and eyes closed, Severo listened. Each of her footsteps poked at his muscles, as if to prod awake something long dormant.
He required no prodding. At this moment, he was more awake and alive than he'd felt in decades.
He'd been strolling the neighborhood, assessing the abandoned real estate, when he'd picked up the vile scent of longtooths on the hunt. Their obnoxious odor had triggered his gag reflex. Yet he had sensed the female's scent and had ducked inside the warehouse.
If he could save one human from the clutches of a vampire, then it was a good day indeed.
But what he hadn't expected was the way she'd made him feel. Or that she'd make him feel at all.
He had walked this earth for many decades and had given up hope of ever finding a true mate. Human females were so fragile, delicate, and not worth more than a few nights of pleasure.
This one was different. She was emotionally strong.
Could she be the one? A woman he could finally make his own. His mate. Forever.