Authors: Amanda Ashley
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Paranormal
He just stepped into the room, kicked the door closed with his heel, drew her into his arms, and kissed her.
As always, she melted into him, her every thought, her every desire focused on Ronan, only Ronan. Desire flowed through her, warm and honey-sweet. Maybe tonight, she thought, maybe tonight he would carry her to bed and make love to her. She knew he wanted her. She could taste it in his kiss, feel it in the way his body quivered against hers.
She was breathless when he broke the kiss.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for hours,” he said, his voice husky. “I keep telling myself that I’ll bring you nothing but misery, but I can’t leave you alone.” He ran his knuckles lightly over her cheek. “I can’t stay away.”
She stared up at him, dazed by his kiss, mesmerized by the heat in his eyes. “I don’t want you to stay away.”
Desire After Dark
A Whisper of Eternity
Published by Zebra Books
Kensington Publishing Corp.
To Abbey Marie,
the newest member of our family.
Shannah had followed him every night for the last four months. At first, she hadn’t been sure why, other than the fact that she was dying and out of a job and had nothing better to do.
She remembered the first time she had seen him. She had been sitting by the back window in the Pot Pourri Café across the street from the town’s only movie theater. She had been sipping a cup of hot chocolate when she saw him emerge from the theater. It had been late October, near Halloween, and the theater had been running classic vampire movies all month, showing a different film each night of the week. The old Bela Lugosi version of
had been playing that night.
The stranger had been wearing a long black duster over snug black jeans and a black T-shirt. With his long black hair, her first thought was that he could have been a vampire himself except that his skin was a dusky brown instead of deathly pale. A wannabe vampire, obviously. She knew there was a whole cult of them in the city, men and women who frequented Goth clubs. They wore black clothes and capes. Some of them wore fake fangs and pretended to drink blood. She had heard that some didn’t pretend, but actually drank blood. Others role-played on the Internet in vampire and Goth chat rooms.
Shannah had been sitting by the window in that same café when she saw the stranger the second time. He hadn’t been coming out of the movie theater that night, merely strolling down the street, his hands thrust into the pockets of his jeans, which were black again. During the next few weeks, she saw him walking down the same street at about the same time almost every night, which she supposed wasn’t really all that strange. After all, she went to the same café and sat at the same booth in the back at about the same time every night.
One evening, simply for something to do, she left the café and followed him, curious to see where he went. She followed him the next night, and the next. And suddenly it was a habit, a way to spend the long, lonely nights when she couldn’t sleep. Sometimes he merely walked through the park across from City Hall. Sometimes he sat on one of the benches, as unmoving and silent as the bronze statue of the town’s founding father that was located near the center of the park.
While following the man in the long black duster, she learned that he went to the movies every Wednesday evening and always sat in the last row. He wandered through the mall on Friday nights. He spent Saturday nights in the local pub, invariably sitting in the shadows in the far corner. He always ordered a glass of red wine, which he never finished. Other than the wine, she never saw him eat or drink anything. He never bought popcorn or candy at the movies. He never bought a soda or a cup of coffee or a hot dog in the mall.
When she followed him home, she learned that he lived in an old but elegant two-story house at the edge of town. The house had bars on the windows and a security screen door, and was surrounded by a block wall that must have been twelve feet high, complete with an impressive wrought-iron gate. She wondered what he was hiding in there, and spent untold hours pondering who and what he might be. A drug lord? An arms dealer? Some sort of international spy? A reclusive millionaire? A serial killer? A mad scientist? A terrorist? Her imagination knew no bounds.
The holidays came and went. He didn’t go to visit family for Thanksgiving, and no one came to visit him. As far as she could see, he didn’t celebrate Christmas. No tinsel-laden tree appeared in the large front window. No colorful lights adorned his house. He didn’t go out to celebrate the New Year. But then, neither did she. As far as she knew, he didn’t buy flowers or candy on Valentine’s Day, nor did he go to visit a lady friend. He was a handsome man—tall, dark and handsome—which begged the question, why wasn’t he married, or at least dating? Perhaps he was in mourning. Perhaps that was why he always wore black. Then again, maybe he wore it because it looked so good on him.
She camped out in the woods across from his house three or four times a week, weather permitting, but she never saw him emerge during the day. He took a daily newspaper, but he never picked it up until after the sun went down. The same with his mail. He never had any visitors. He never had pizza delivered. No repairmen ever came to call.
She wasn’t sure when she started to think he really was a vampire, but the more she thought about it, the more convinced she became. He only came out at night. He lived alone. He didn’t eat. He always wore black. He never had any visitors. She never saw him with anyone else because…
He was a vampire.
Vampires lived forever and were supposed to be able to pass immortality on to others.
Ergo, he was the only one who could help her.
All she needed now was the courage to approach him. But how? And when? And what would she say?
It was the first of March before she finally worked up enough courage to put intention into action. Tomorrow night, she decided resolutely. She would ask him tomorrow night.
But, just in case he refused her or she changed her mind at the last minute, she armed herself with a small bottle of holy water stolen from the Catholic church on the corner of Main Street, wondering, briefly, if stolen holy water would retain its effectiveness. She found a small gold crucifix and chain that had belonged to her favorite aunt. She fashioned a wooden stake out of the handle of an old broom. She filled the pockets of her coat and jeans with cloves of garlic.
That should do it,
she thought, patting her coat pocket. If he was agreeable, by this time tomorrow night she would be Undead. If he decided to make a meal of her instead of transforming her, she would just be dead a few weeks earlier than the doctors had predicted.
Ronan didn’t have to glance over his shoulder to know that the slender girl with the long black hair and big blue eyes was following him again. She had drifted in his wake like a pale shadow for the last five months or so. She followed him to the park. She followed him to the movies, to the local pub, to the mall, to his post office box when he picked up his mail. She followed him home. Sometimes she spent the night in the wooded area across from his house.
He wondered when she slept.
He wondered why her complexion was so ashen.
He wondered who she was.
He wondered why in blue blazes she was following him.
One thing was certain. He didn’t like her trailing after him one damn bit. He could have lost her easily enough. He could have destroyed her. He could have hypnotized her and made her forget he existed.
So, why hadn’t he?
It was a question he had asked himself every night for the last five months.
It was a question for which he had no answer, and that annoyed the living hell out of him. But just now, he had other, more important things on his mind than a skinny mortal female.
Lifting his head, he caught the scent of prey on the evening breeze. With a thought, he vanished from her sight.
Shannah blinked and blinked again. Where had he gone? One minute he had been a few yards ahead of her and the next he was gone as if he had never been there at all.
Pausing, she rubbed her eyes. Had she started to imagine things? Maybe it was just one more symptom of her illness, like the fever that burned through her. Or maybe he really was a vampire. She giggled. Or the Invisible Man.
Feeling suddenly light-headed, she reached out, bracing one hand against the wall of a tall brick building. Her time was running out. She felt it in the deepest part of her being, knew it was only a matter of weeks, perhaps days, before she lapsed into a coma, never to awake again. And then what? The endless nothingness that she feared, or the heavenly paradise that her grandmother had promised awaited all those who believed?
Shannah took a deep breath. Before she left this world, she had to know if the man she had been following was truly a vampire.
On legs that wobbled with every step, she walked to the woods across from his house and settled down in her usual place to keep watch. It was quite cozy, all things considered. She had a couple of warm quilts, a small pillow, an ice chest filled with water and soft drinks, another chest filled with potato chips and her favorite candy bars. Not exactly a healthy diet, but what difference did it make now? It was only a matter of time as to which ran out first, the money her grandfather had left her, or her life. She giggled as she reached for a soda. At least she didn’t have to worry about high cholesterol or getting fat. Or catching some horrible fatal disease, she thought with morbid amusement, since she already had one.
Tonight, she didn’t have to wait long for the stranger to appear. He emerged out of the darkness a short time later and entered his house. The lights came on. Plumes of blue-gray smoke drifted from the chimney to be blown away by an itinerant breeze.
She had promised herself that she would approach him tonight but her courage suddenly deserted her. She would keep watch here again tonight, she decided, and knock on his door tomorrow afternoon. If he answered, she would know he wasn’t a vampire. If he didn’t…somehow she would have to work up the nerve to approach him after the sun went down.
But for now…her eyelids fluttered down. For now she needed sleep.
She woke late in the afternoon with the sun in her face and the usual cramping in her stomach. Sitting up, she folded her arms around her middle and rocked back and forth. When the worst of the pain was over, she drank some water, then splashed some on her face. Though she wasn’t really hungry, she knew she needed to eat to keep her strength up and she forced herself to eat one of the bran muffins she had bought the day before, and to drink some orange juice.
Finally, with one hand propped against a tree, she gained her feet, her gaze moving to the house across the way. It looked like the kind of house you saw in movies, the kind inhabited by witches or haunted by unfriendly ghosts.
She had planned to approach the mysterious stranger that afternoon but now that the time had come, she found her courage failing her once more. Even though she was convinced he was the only answer to her problem, she wasn’t sure she was ready to meet a vampire face to face.
“Oh, for goodness sakes, stop being such a coward,” she muttered. “What have you got to lose? A few days at most.”
Still, she wanted those days. In the last few months, she had learned that each new day, each hour of life, was a precious gift from God, a gift that was meant to be savored and cherished. She only wished she had realized that sooner.
She dusted off her jeans, straightened her T-shirt, ran her hands through the tangles in her hair. Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was a little after five. Too early for a vampire to be up and about. So, if he answered the door, that would prove he wasn’t a vampire. And if he didn’t answer, well if he didn’t, it could mean one of two things. Either he had left the house while she slept, proving that he was just a man, or he was stretched out in his coffin somewhere, sleeping the sleep of the Undead.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and marched resolutely across the grassy field and the road beyond. She pushed on the heavy gate, blew out a sigh of exasperation when it didn’t open. She should have known that it would be locked.
Well, she wasn’t going to let a little thing like a locked gate deter her now that she had finally found the courage to approach him. Turning to the left, she followed the block wall along the property line and there, at the back of the house, she found a tree with branches that extended over the wall.
Taking another deep breath, she reached for the lowest branch. It had been years since she had climbed a tree and now she knew why. She hadn’t worried about falling and breaking a leg, or, worse, her neck, when she’d been a little girl, but the possibility of either or both occurred to her now. And then she shrugged. A broken neck would be a quick, reasonably painless way to go.
Shaking the thought from her mind, she gained the top of the wall, swung her legs over the other side, and dropped to the ground in the backyard.
The house looked as forbidding from the back as it did from the front. The grounds were in dire need of attention. The lawn hadn’t been mowed in weeks, perhaps months. There were weeds that needed pulling, trees that hadn’t been pruned in a long time, a wrought-iron bench in need of paint. It was a big yard, one that could have been beautiful. It seemed a shame to let it get so overgrown. If she lived here, she would plant flowers along the walkway and rose bushes in the weed-infested gardens. She’d put a covered swing in the corner, maybe a gazebo near the gardens.
But it wasn’t her house. With a shake of her head, she walked around to the front porch. Her palms were damp, her mouth as dry as the Sahara in mid-summer when she finally summoned the courage to knock on the door.
She knocked again, harder. And then once more.
So, was he sleeping in his coffin, or just not at home?
She was about to turn away when the door opened and she found herself staring up into the face of the man she had been following. She had never been close enough to see the color of his eyes. Now she saw that they were black.
As black as death
. The words whispered through the corridors of her mind even as she felt the warmth of the late afternoon sun on her back. Danger emanated from him like heat rising from summer-hot pavement.
He couldn’t be a vampire.
He couldn’t help her.
She was going to die.
Tears burned the backs of her eyes and dampened her cheeks. She didn’t want to die, not now. She was only twenty-four. There was so much she wanted to do, so many places she wanted to go, so much of life she had yet to experience. And she was afraid. Afraid of the pain, afraid of dying.
His hooded gaze met hers, cool and direct. “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing. I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
“Who are you looking for?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Have you a name?”
“Shannah.” She wiped her tear-damp cheeks with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry I bothered you. Good-bye.”
She tried to turn away but her legs refused to obey. Caught in the dark web of his gaze, she could only stand there, her arms limp at her sides, staring up at him while hot tears trickled down her cheeks. She had never really noticed how handsome he was. Not in the way that the blond, bland young men in Hollywood were handsome, but in a dark, mysterious and forbidding sort of way. He had short thick eyelashes, a fine straight nose, a strong jaw line. He looked like a man who knew what he wanted in life and wouldn’t hesitate to take it by fair means or foul.
“You’ve been following me for the last five months,” he said brusquely. “Who did you think I was?” He glanced past her to the wrought-iron gate. “And how the hell did you get in here?”
She felt a rush of heat climb up the back of her neck as she searched her mind for a convincing lie but his gaze continued to hold hers captive and she suddenly lacked the will to lie to him.
“I thought you were a vampire,” she said, thinking how foolish the words sounded when spoken out loud.
One dark brow lifted. “A vampire?” he murmured. “Indeed?”
She nodded, embarrassed now. “But it’s still daylight, you know, and you’re awake instead of closed up in your coffin so I guess I was wrong…” She bit down on her lower lip, aware that she was babbling like an idiot. “I’ll be going now. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
Shoulders drooping with discouragement, she turned away, took a few wobbly steps and with a small moan, tumbled down the porch stairs.
Ronan stared at the girl sprawled at the bottom of the steps, at the thin trickle of crimson oozing from a shallow cut in her forehead. He took a deep breath as the intoxicating scent of her blood was carried to him on an errant breeze. Was there anything in the world that smelled as sweet?
Muttering an oath, he turned on his heel and went back inside the house, only to emerge a moment later swathed in a heavy black hooded cloak that covered him from head to heel.
Bracing himself for the pain to come, he flew down the stairs, swept the girl into his arms, and darted back into the house, kicking the door shut behind him.
Eyes closed, he stood in the entryway for a moment, panting heavily, his skin tingling and tightening in a most unpleasant way. When the worst of the pain receded, he glanced down at the girl in his arms. She was unconscious, her breathing labored, her cheeks ashen. She was far too thin. Her skin was feverishly warm. There were dark purple shadows, like bruises, beneath her eyes, hollows in her pale cheeks. He could hear the beat of her heart, slow and heavy, smell the life-giving blood that flowed sluggishly through her veins and oozed in thick red drops from the shallow cut in her brow.
The crimson droplets beckoned him. His hold on her tightened. He licked his lips as the hunger stirred deep within, searing his insides, demanding to be fed.
Unable to resist either the pain of his hunger or the temptation of her blood, he lowered his head and licked the blood from the wound.
And tasted death.