HE WAS EVERYTHING that she wanted.
She loved the way he held her, the strength in his arms when he swept her up. True, she wanted him on a purely sexual level, but there was more. She had fallen beneath the spell of his eyes, which were caring when he faced the travails of others, intense in anger, like the sun when he laughed. She loved the touch of his fingers, gentle when they stroked her face, strong when he held her. In his arms she was safe.
And dangerously wicked.
She felt no sense of fear as they walked through the doorway to her room.
She was almost preternaturally aware of everything. The feel of the sheets beneath her as he laid her down, the pressure of his body, the cotton of her gown brushing against her flesh. She felt his bare feet against hers and the rough fabric of the pants he still wore, the sleek, hot flesh of his chest burning against her, lighting a fire within her blood.
Moonlight, pale and mystical, bathed them. She saw his face and traced her fingers along the contours of his features, fascinated. She cradled his cheek and jaw when she saw his war with himself reflected in his eyes as he thought again that he should not be with her, and she whis pered, "You have to believe me. I know what I want," praying that her voice didn't sound as desperate as she felt, and that he would not leave her.
He didn't. He only shook his head ever so slightly, and in a strange way, it was as if he were surrendering.
Then his mouth found hers, and in that kiss, it seemed as if the world around her exploded in a brilliance of wonder. Heat swept through her like a blaze in the desert, and she felt her body arching and moving by instinct, aligning with his lean and muscular form. His lips went from passionate to gentle, playing erotically against hers, and his hands cradled her face, giving him greater access to her mouth. Fevered, she returned his kiss, clinging to his bare shoulders, then exploring the length of his back with eager hands. She felt her gown tangle around her as they twisted and rolled in passion. They broke the kiss and laughed together, and then he lifted the gown over her head and held still for a breathless moment, before crushing her into his arms again.
They kissed again, clinging together, flesh against bare flesh, growing slick despite the coolness of the night air. His mouth ravaged over her shoulders as he cradled her breasts and groaned deep in his throat, and his hands ran down the length of her back, pressing her harder against him. She teased his skin with the tip of her tongue, drawing lines on his flesh, breathing in the essence of him, and with each breath, each touch, her hunger grew ever greater.
At last he rose to remove his pants, and for a moment she was alone, the air around her bringing a moment's chill. She saw him silhouetted against moonlight, and a rush of desire swept over her again. She knew, whatever he might think or feel, that she would cherish this night, this time together, forever. Life was so fragile. She had seen it slip away too often, but she herself was far stronger than he would ever truly realize.
He came down to her again, stretching out beside her, his body close, touching, one leg thrown over hers, his hands on her, brushing over her skin like an artist of the flesh. She moved into him, their mouths meeting and melding again, and she felt his vitality and power coursing beneath the skin. She moved against him, her lips traveled across his chest, and she felt his fingers threading through her hair, then moving along her nape and down to the small of her back. His hands cradled her buttocks, pressing her ever closer, until he shifted suddenly, and his lips and tongue began a tour down the length of her body, blazing a trail of liquid sensuality that made her writhe in an agony of need.
He was a practiced lover, she thought vaguely, and yet all that mattered was that he make love to her at that moment.
And he did, both tender and strong, bathing her with the touch of his hands and tongue, arousing her with his kiss on her lips and then the stroke of his tongue against her hips and thighs, and between. She gasped out a soft cry of wonder at the lightning streak of ecstasy that swept through her, her body shivering, shaking, trembling, as she rose to join the moon. And then she felt him inside her, and the desire that built within her then was like something maddening and tempestuous, burning out of control. A slow rhythm began to beat in her blood like a pagan drumbeat. She barely had time to savor the feel of him so completely within her when the fever sent her arching, writhing, falling into the rampant blaze he'd stoked in her.
The world shrank down to the feel of the mattress beneath her, the strength of his embrace, the damp sleek ness of his body against hers. Finally, just when she felt she couldn't bear any more, they were seized as one by the power of climax, and their wild dance of tangled limbs became a moment of ecstasy frozen in time and then eased...down to a magical completion.
She grew aware once again of the gleaming moonlight, the air cooling her skin.
And his eyes meeting hers.
His touch was tender as he smoothed back her hair.
"You are...unique," he told her. "Incredible."
He started to pull away, and she shook her head. "Don't leave me, please. Not now. I'm not staking any claim on you, and when it's time, I will let you go, I promise."
A smile curved his lips, and he drew closer to her again. "You thought I was going to walk away tonight? Not a chance in hell," he assured her.
There was so much she wanted to know about him, so much she wanted to understand. But not at that moment. At that moment she was afraid of words. She just wanted to be with him, to revel in the moment and the feeling of being absolutely alive and vital and real.
The war was a world away, along with all the horrors she remembered.
Even the town and the plague that had descended upon it had been pushed to the back of her mind.
In his arms, the world was good and it was hers.
They lay together for hours, drowsy, half asleep. They brushed against each other, they made love again, and at last they slept.
And this time her dreams were only dreams, and they were good, for he was holding her tight as a benevolent moon shone down.
DOLORES! DOLORES, it's urgent that I speak with you. It's about Amy.
Dolores Simpson was awakened from a sound sleep by the voice.
She jerked up, clasping the covers to her breast, then looked to the side, thinking Bill must have spoken.
But Bill was snoring softly.
She frowned, certain she had heard someone call her name. And they had mentioned Amy. Precious Amy! Everyone said that Amy was dead, and yet each night she heard her daughter call out, her voice stronger every time.
That nice Mr. Vincent had come by to tell her that Amy was with God. That if she thought she heard Amy or any child-any voice-crying out, she had to ignore it. That it was very important to ignore it.
He had talked to Bill and the boys about locking the house and how to destroy the evil that was stalking the town, cutting out the heart or severing the head.
Brendan Vincent was a fine man, no doubt, but she was a good Christian woman, and she couldn't condone doing such terrible things to a human body, even the body of an enemy. Such brutality was positively pagan.
Dolores got up and slipped on her robe, then glanced again at Bill, who was still snoring softly. He was a hardworking man, and a gentle one. A good husband. She pulled the covers up higher around his shoulders, then walked down the hall and looked in on the last two children still living at home, Gary and Jared, their adopted sons, now fifteen and thirteen. She loved them so much. As much as she loved Amy. Amy had been her youngest daughter. Golden and sweet, so precious. Everyone had loved her.
The boys, too, were sleeping.
Dolores, please! It's urgent!
She walked to the window. A woman was standing outside. Dolores thought she knew her, but she couldn't recall from where.
She hesitated. They'd been warned...but the woman hardly looked dangerous. And her voice was so gentle, so compassionate and kind. And mesmerizing...
Dolores, come to me, I can help you. I can take you to Amy. Just come to me.
Dolores stopped thinking and gave herself up to her feelings. She loved her husband and she loved her sons, but Amy...
Nothing had ever before promised her such a sweet peace as the voice did now.
She walked straight to the front door and quietly slid back the double bolts, then carefully opened the door as quietly as she could.
She stepped out onto the porch and paused, frowning, rational thought whispering at the back of her mind that something was wrong.
The woman glided forward, looking for all the world like a shimmering angel wreathed in mist, and Dolores stepped off the porch.
I have a message for you, a message from Amy.
Dolores stepped forward eagerly, finding herself embraced by the same mist that surrounded the woman, lit by the gentle glow of moonlight. The woman embraced her and leaned down, eyes filled with compassion. Come closer so I can whisper to you.
Then the mist was gone.
And the reality that remained was pure horror.
Dolores saw, eyes wide-open at last, that she had been deceived.
Oddly enough, there was very little pain. Like two little pricks.
The sound was far worse as the woman lapped against her throat, drinking thirstily, swallowing like a greedy animal, then sighing with ultimate pleasure.
I will not use you up. Not yet. But...you are mine, Dolores. Mine.
Again the slurping. But softer now. Careful, even.
When the vampire was done, she pulled away from Dolores and smiled. There was a touch of blood on her upper lip. Perhaps she felt it, or perhaps she saw it reflected in Dolores's eyes, but she extended her tongue, long and red, and lapped up the last drop of blood.
You will await my call.
Then she let go of Dolores, who fell as if boneless. When she looked up, the woman was gone.
Dolores blinked, confused, then realized she'd had a dream. A dream about Amy. And she had gone outside. She winced, thinking that Bill and the boys would be horrified, that they would worry about her common sense, even her sanity, if they found out, so she had to get back inside before they realized she was missing.
She tried to rise, but she couldn't. She was too weak.
Finally she managed to get up and practically drag herself to the porch and through the front door.
It took all her strength to relock the bolts.
Leaning on the wall for support, she finally made it back to her bedroom.
Trying hard not to stumble, she reached the bed and nearly fell back onto the mattress. She froze, praying that she hadn't awakened Bill, but he continued to snore softly.
She closed her eyes and-amazingly-she slept. She dreamed once again of the woman, of the voice in her head, and of Amy. Her little girl was within her reach, smiling at her. The woman was there, too, surrounded by mist, and her smile was benign once again as she waved to Dolores.
It's so, so beautiful here, with Amy and me.
Dolores longed to join them.
In her dream, she moved forward as the shimmering mist grew dark, and the distant sound of shrieking rode the air as deep red clouds...rolled in.
But then she saw Amy again, and in her dream, Dolores wept, and real tears slid down her cheeks.
A LEX SLEPT LATE THE NEXT morning, and when she awoke, Cody was gone.
She smiled, though. He hadn't left her, she was certain.
He had simply risen for the day.
She was about to rise herself when there was a tap at her door. She drew the covers up over herself and called out, "Yes?"
"It's me. Tess. I've got hot water for you."
"Thank you. Bring it in."
Just as the door opened, she spotted her discarded nightgown lying in a heap on the floor. She made a dive for it and stuffed it under the covers with her, then pulled them back up over herself again.
"Miss Alex, you all right?" Tess asked, coming in and walking over to the dresser with the pitcher of hot water.
"Yes, thanks, just fine," Alex said, trying to sound completely normal.
"Beulah is getting worried down there."
"I'll be right down. I promise."
"All right, but you know Beulah. She says her fresh muffins aren't going to be fresh forever, and you'll be having chicken if you don't come eat your eggs soon."
"I'm on my way."
As soon as Tess left the room, Alex leaped out of bed and hurried to her washstand.
In the midst of washing up, she paused, closed her eyes and breathed deeply, wishing she could carry the scent of him with her always.
She opened her eyes and caught sight of the wild mane of her hair in the mirror, and quickly reached for a brush. It took several long minutes to undo the tangles and smooth it down into the semblance of a proper coif. Next she dressed hastily. Remembering the way the shadow-bats, the vampires, had descended the night before, she opted for riding breeches, boots and a tailored shirt, for mobility.
She couldn't resist the temptation to pause before she left the room and picked up her pillow, where a hint of his scent remained. She was being silly, she told herself.
Silly, and sad. There was something about him. But he wasn't going to stay in her life. He had made that clear.
And she would have no regrets over what she had done, the pleasure they had shared. Nor would she ever attempt to hold him back from whatever he felt his future demanded of him.
She bit her lip and set down the pillow.
She had been in love the proper way once. She'd met a man who loved her, who'd asked her father's blessing for her hand. She had loved him back, and she'd felt as if her heart and soul had been torn from her when he died.
And yet...she hadn't felt like this. As if every breath whispered of him, as if he had become one with her, body and soul.
She squared her shoulders in determination and left the room.
As some might say, she had made her own bed. And now she had to lie in it.
Downstairs, she found Beulah in a disgruntled mood, annoyed that she was so late to breakfast. Alex refused to go along with the other woman's mood. "Don't you think it's a lovely day, Beulah? Last night we fought against evil, and we won."
Beulah shook her head. "You're acting like it's all over, child. You mark my words. It's just beginning. Now, eat your breakfast."
Alex sat down at the table and tried to be casual as she asked, "Where are Brendan and Cody?"
"Up for hours, I'll tell you that," Beulah said, sniffing as she filled Alex's coffee cup.
"Do you know where they went?"
"Down to the sheriff's office, I think."
Alex thanked Beulah and ate quickly, and as soon as she was finished, she told the cook she was going to take a walk down to the sheriff's office, too, and find out what was going on.
Beulah stared at her gravely. "Wherever those men are, you be back here by dusk, Alexandra Gordon, you hear me?"
"Of course, Beulah. And I will. I swear."
Then she hurried out, her every thought of Cody and the incredible night they'd shared.
C ODY AND B RENDAN HAD started early and reached what had been Brigsby by noon, which gave them an hour of full and advantageous daylight before they would have to head back.
Milo Roundtree had obviously found a hiding place to use by day. He had attacked Brigsby first, then Hollow Tree, which made those likely candidates but far from a certainty.
Cody felt weary, thinking of the many ways Milo could attack the target now in his sights: Victory.
He could choose an all-out assault, as he had last night, or he could approach using seduction and trickery. Vampires delighted in temptation, in pulling the strings of emotion and preying on the basic instinct of human desire. And no matter how proud the community might be of their success last night, if he didn't find Milo's hideout and destroy the vampires while they slept, eventually the creatures would find a way to infiltrate Victory.
And what really terrified him was that the way might lead through Alex....
Alex, whose father's grave was empty.
Which meant that Eugene Gordon was out there somewhere, and Cody didn't have the heart to tell Alex that her father had to be hunted down and destroyed.
He reminded himself that he had occasionally-very occasionally, it had to be said-seen cases in which a vampire who had truly cared for someone in life shunned harming them, even after "death." Such a vampire had been extremely strong-willed in life as well as afterward, and though he hadn't known Eugene Gordon, those who had known him referred to him as a man of strong will.
He thought of the way Alex had been drawn to the balcony....
That hadn't been a call from her father.
He wondered if Eugene was somehow surviving on his own, hiding by day and feeding in secret at night, or if he was with Milo's gang, essentially hiding in plain sight while somehow managing to stay out of the attacks on Victory.
He shook off those thoughts for a later day as they stopped in the center of Brigsby's main street. The entire town was covered with a thick layer of plains dust. The door to the combination barber shop and dentist's office was slamming open, then shut, in the breeze, and the swinging saloon doors hung at odd angles, the lower hinges ripped free.
Cody dismounted and held very still, listening, closing his eyes and using his other senses. He felt nothing.
Nothing but emptiness.
"I'll check the saloon," Brendan said.
"We'll stick together," Cody told him.
They tethered the horses between the saloon and a general mercantile, then carried the tools of their trade inside, in case there was trouble.
The saloon was empty.
Empty except for the decaying, almost mummified, remains of a man who'd fallen over the poker table, his jaw at an odd angle.
He'd been holding a pair of aces.
Sadly, they had won him nothing.
Brendan looked at the corpse, then at Cody, and arched a brow.
Cody shook his head. "Dead as a doornail. Still..."
He walked over to the corpse, took the head in his hands and twisted. The dried flesh and bone broke easily. He set the head down on the table and said sadly, "We don't have time for decent burials."
"I know. Let's move on," Brendan said, his voice all business.
In the mercantile, they paused and stared at shelves of fabric, grain, feed and canned goods, all covered in fine cobwebs.
What gave them cause for concern was the fact that the floor was strewn with animal corpses-cats, dogs, rats, squirrels, one calf and one coyote-and the body of an elderly man.
This time Cody didn't need to remove the head. The body had already been savagely torn apart.
He signaled Brendan to be still and quietly moved to the end of the counter, his hand tightly gripped around a stake.
Something, someone, exploded out at Cody. He was ready with the stake and pierced the creature before so much as seeing its face or knowing its sex, race, color or anything other than that he was being viciously attacked.
The thing gripped the stake, casting back its head, giving the men a glimpse of wildly matted hair and a face so heavily bearded it might have belonged to a werewolf.
Cody pinned the vampire to the floor, where it thrashed furiously in its death throes.
Finally it went still, and the skin started to crackle and darken.
It was a young creature and stopped decaying before it became a pile of ash.
Brendan had stepped up behind Cody. "I knew him," he said softly. "His name was JoJo Grayson, and he was kind of a woodsman, kind of a gypsy. He made his money hunting rattlesnakes and trapping critters for fur. He came through all the towns around here when he felt in need of a night at a saloon. Always smelled to high heaven, but he was a harmless old coot."
Cody hunkered down and cut off the man's head.
Now he was harmless.
"So what do you think? Is the hideout here?" Brendan asked softly.
Cody shook his head. "No, this isn't it."
"Hollow Tree, then," Brendan said dully.
"Seems likely," Cody admitted. "We've got to finish here, see if there are any other wild cards, and get back to town before nightfall. Tomorrow we'll head out to Hollow Tree."
He retrieved his stake and stood.
They moved on. There were a lot of buildings in Brigsby and not much time to search them.
THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE was empty.
Alex stood on the wooden sidewalk and looked down the street. Jim Green saw her and waved, so she smiled and waved in return. A woman was sweeping out in front of the general store, and a man farther down the street was up on his roof, patching shingles.
She turned and looked out toward the cemetery. Though she couldn't tell who they were, she could see that there were people there.
Were they burying the dead from last night's battle?
Maybe Cole and Dave were out at the cemetery, she thought, and maybe Cody and Brendan, too.
She turned around and headed back to the boardinghouse. She didn't feel like a lecture from Beulah, so she avoided the front door and walked around back, aiming straight for the stables.
She found Levy cleaning out the stalls and assured him that she could saddle Cheyenne herself, and also told him that she was only heading out to the cemetery.
He leaned on his shovel for a moment. "I figured you'd be heading out there soon enough. I was kind of surprised you hadn't been already."
Her heart flipped, and guilt ripped through her. She had desperately needed to see the place where her father had died; somehow, she had believed that seeing the site would tell her the truth about his death. But she had avoided the cemetery. The place where he had been buried. She had kept it out of her heart and out of her mind. If she didn't see his grave, she didn't have to fully accept the fact that he was dead, that he wasn't coming back.
She thought of the dream she'd had the other night. He would always be in her dreams. In that way, she told herself, he never would die.
"Right, Levy," she said softly. "Well, I won't be long. And it's perfectly safe-there are other people out there, and, anyway, you can see the cemetery from the sheriff's office."
Levy nodded. He looked as if he wanted to speak, but he didn't.
"I'll be back soon," she promised.
It was a short canter out to the cemetery. As she neared it, she saw that Cole, Dave and a number of other men were there. They'd built a funeral pyre safely outside the weathered wooden gates, and dug a pit, and she knew that the remains of the undead who had been truly killed last night would be interred in that pit.
As she dismounted, Cole spotted her. "Alex, what are you doing out here?" he demanded with dismay.
"I came to see my father's grave," she said, but guilt assailed her as she spoke. True, she was going to visit her father's grave.
But curiosity and restlessness were really what had brought her.
"Alex, this isn't a good time to be doing that," Cole said.
But she had already skirted the fire and entered the cemetery. "I know where he is," she said. "He always told me he wanted the highest point, dead center, because he'd thought of himself as the dead center of Victory for so long," she told Dave.
"What in God's name...?" Alex murmured.
The graveyard looked as if it had been under attack, a number of graves standing open and empty in front of their silent headstones. She turned to stare at Cole for a long moment, then ran up the small hill at the center of the cemetery.
She found her father's grave right where she had expected it to be.
The ground was freshly dug, a giant hole gaping in the ground and her father's coffin lying beside it, open and empty.