Excerpt from Salvation of the Damned
He’d found her.
As if they sensed something dark and extraordinary about him, the costumed party guests separated like water around a ship, allowing Raphael to pass. He barely noticed. All his senses honed in on her evocative scent.
His smile, he knew, would be faintly triumphant as he traced the unique fragrance of night-blooming flowers and hot female flesh that had led him here, to the pulsing heart of New Orleans. For once, he didn’t care about showing his fangs or unnatural pallor. The simpletons around him would assume it was only part of a Mardi Gras costume. Foolish mortals. They wouldn’t know he was the genuine article until the light in their eyes faded away.
Tonight was not merely a hunt. Tonight was critical to the survival of his kind. The perfume of the woman’s blood filled his senses. Despite the hundreds of guests, Raphael separated the light throb of her particular heartbeat from the others. It pulsed, warm and rich, calling to his inner thirst like nothing he had experienced since his turning. His mouth watered, venom flowed and his fangs grew longer in anticipation.
Two days ago her scent had been a mere whisper, a seductive wisp that drifted in on the wind and coiled about his senses. But as the hours slid by, it changed, demanding all his attention, bringing him to her. She drew him, even though he had yet to catch sight of her. He didn’t need to see her to know who she was. Put him in a room filled with a thousand women, and her scent alone would identify her as his quarry.
The sacrifice. Their salvation.
Have you found her yet? The voice of the eldest vampire Janus, the father of them all, intruded into his mind. Urgent. Worried.
Be quick. It is nearly time.
I know, I know. I’ll have her there by midnight. I always have.
Raphael took a deep breath and flexed his fingers, though it was purely an exercise to calm his mind. He had long since ceased to need his lungs, and the strength in his hands could easily crush a cannon ball.
Her scent grew stronger, filling his nostrils with her enticing heady bouquet, a mixture of jasmine and spiced wine. A taste he hadn’t experienced in what felt like forever, yet the memory of the flavor tantalized his tongue. The crowd shifted, exposing a lithe brunette with a stunning profile and lush mouth. Her chocolate-colored hair cascaded loose and free around her creamy shoulders and bare back. Dressed as a Regency-era courtesan in black silk, she captured his attention and that of every man in sight. Laughing, she turned, pale blue eyes sparkling. She was so alive, so vibrant, the very sight of her made his chest ache.
If he still had a beating heart, it would have stopped dead at the sight of her. As it was, a shot of heat that owed nothing to blood flow and everything to raw need, coursed through his body. Only once in six thousand years had he been so affected, and it had cost him dearly. For a thousand years he had mourned that particular woman. Death would have been far easier than living on knowing what he had done.
He couldn’t afford to make the same mistake again.
For his kind.
She was being watched. Evaline St. Croix sensed the gaze skim down her back like a heated, physical caress. Casually glancing around at her fellow party guests laughing and dancing around her, she pinpointed the source. A stranger, unlike anyone in her acquaintance. Tall and lean, his eyes covered by a black demi-mask, he moved with a quiet strength and sure grace. His gaze was dark and intense, his thick coffee-colored hair, threaded with strands of gold, brushed the collar of an expensive tuxedo.
Laurie, one of her coworkers at the accounting firm, eyed the stranger, her gaze assessing and hot. “Be still my beating heart.” She sounded as breathless as Eva felt. “Please tell me you know Tall, Dark and Dangerous over there. ”
No. Yes. She tried not to stare, but everything in Eva wanted to turn and look her fill. “Not sure.”
Dragging her gaze away from the stranger striding toward them, the other woman smiled, giving Eva a knowing look. She fanned her face with her hand. “Whew! I feel like a voyeur. I should cover my eyes. My God, he’s already undressed you with that smokin’ hot look. Any second now, he’s going to have you flat on your back in the middle of the dance floor!”
Face hot, Eva’s insides tightened in response to the man’s ultra-focused attention as he closed the yards between them. It was like being under the bright light of a tractor beam. “Laurie!”
“Well he certainly seems interested in you. Live a little. He could be a lot of fun.”
Eva wasn’t sure. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder to see who he was looking at with such heat and longing.
“What are you doing?” Laurie demanded, grabbing her arm. “Looking for the exit?”
“Looking to see who he’s staring at.”
Her friend laughed. “He’s looking at you like that. Trust me. He only has eyes for you.”
He was looking at her? Looking at her like she was a supermodel. Eva looked at herself critically in her mirror every morning. Everything was where it was supposed to be. She had nice skin. And her brown hair could be called pretty, well, shiny at least. But she was not, absolutely not, the kind of woman that would make a man like this guy look at her with that level of heat in his gaze.
She’d wanted something, Eva thought, a little panicky, and here he was. “Be careful what you wish for,” her grandmother used to say. Eva didn’t have the kind of imagination that could wish for this man. Not even close. She’d just wanted something—someone—to loosen up her straight, and let’s face it, rather boring existence. Crunching numbers as a CPA in a cubicle at Cox and Hotchkiss didn’t offer much in the way of a good time. She was nothing more than a small, unimportant cog in a big powerful machine. Hardly what she thought her life would amount to, especially considering what she’d already been through.
But who was he? She didn’t recall seeing him before, and she knew most of the party guests tonight. They were a mixture of her firm’s biggest clients, friends and social acquaintances. A veritable Who’s Who of the South.
His lips were definitely kissable. Lips that promised the kind of slow, long, deep kisses that had her fantasizing about all the things his mouth could do. They tipped up slightly in a wicked subtle smile, emphasizing the cleft in his chin as their gazes locked. Dragging her attention away from the faint smile, Eva’s gaze clashed with his. Dark topaz eyes, mesmerizing, their message impossible to mistake, held her immobile as party guests swirled around them in a kaleidoscope of color and noise.
Like a work of art, he was too handsome. But it was more than his physical perfection that struck her. Raw primal power radiated from him, causing a ripple in his wake as he moved through the crowded ballroom with an animal grace, cutting through the clusters of guests with ease.
Time suddenly seemed to speed from slow mo’ to double time, and in an instant he was right in front of her.
“Would you like to dance?” He held out a broad, smooth hand in invitation. She didn’t know him, had never met him, and yet as she stared into the golden liquid depths of his eyes, she felt an instant connection, as if they’d known each other forever.
“Not right now. Thanks.” It wasn’t just the dance. She sensed that touching him would be the start of something she wasn’t going to be able to control. Walk away from him, she told herself firmly. Having a fling with any of the firm’s clients or their associates would backfire drastically. Her disastrous relationship with Kevin had taught her not to even attend this kind of function.
When it had come to talking about marriage, she’d been honest with him about her past and her destiny. He’d thought she was making up excuses and a bit crazy. In his anger he pulled his multi-million dollar account from the firm, and she’d lost both her job and a measure of her self-confidence. She’d only come tonight because Laurie had assured her Kevin wouldn’t be here.
But at the moment, staring into the stranger’s eyes, Eva found she didn’t give a damn. Her skin grew hot, her knees weak, the longer she gazed at the man before her. It had been far too long since a man had numbed her brain this thoroughly by just being next to her, and it made her head spin.
“It’s only a dance.”
Walk away. This man is… not like Kevin. She’d had no problem telling Kevin no. She seriously doubted she could do the same with this man. She couldn’t form the thought. Despite all her logical mental objections, her body seemed to have a will of its own, and Eva found herself placing her hand in his. The cool firmness of his touch against her skin startled her and sent an electrical current up her arm that was shocking in its intensity. Her fingers automatically tightened in his. How foolish. It was this man she was afraid of, yet it was this man she wanted to cling to.
“Scared?” he taunted lightly, as she resisted the tug of his hand.
“To dance? Not at all.” Eva managed a small smile as she flowed into his arms. Her heart pumped so hard that the rush of blood in her ears made it difficult to hear the thumping base in the music. Their steps seemed synchronized as they moved easily together. “I’m Evaline St. Croix,” Eva told him with forced lightness. The party, loud and boisterous only moments before, seemed to fall away, leaving just the two of them on the dance floor.
His hand felt cool and dry against hers. He smiled slightly, his golden eyes dancing with humor—and something else Eva couldn’t name. Something that made her heart pound even harder and caused her blood to flow hot and fast through her veins. “So what’s your name?”
“Raphael,” he told her, after several seconds where she suspected he was assessing her in a way no man had ever done before.
His name suited him. “Are you supposed to be a dark angel, then?”
Something deep in his gaze sparkled. “Hardly. It’s an old family name.”
“My friends call me Eva.”
“And what may I call you?”
For a moment, her mouth refused to work as thoughts hit her mind in a rush. Call me sexy, tempting, anything you want as long as you touch me.
His mouth twitched, as if she’d said the words out loud rather than thought them, and she swallowed, grateful he couldn’t read her mind. She tried to find her voice, but the words came out nearly a whisper. “Eva will do.”
At least the dance floor was crowded and the music was fast-paced. That might give her time to rein in her raging libido before she did anything to embarrass herself or her employer.
But her fragile security vanished once the music changed to a slow sultry salsa. Taking her hands, he tugged her close, the heels of his hands resting against her hips. She smelled his intoxicating cologne, and the starch in his shirt. An arc of electricity pulsated between them, making her achingly aware of his nearness. She couldn’t help but notice how broad his shoulders were and how solid he seemed as the fluid movements of the dance brought them close enough for him to brush against her thighs, her stomach and her breasts.
Swaying to the music, they circled slowly, the tempo captivating her as she stared up into his perfectly sculptured face. Her breasts tightened as his inexorable hold drew her against the solidness of his body, his broad hands against her hips, cool through the thin silk of her dress.
“It’s been entirely too long,” he said quietly, his gaze holding hers as they moved together. A hint of longing flitted across his eyes before he shuttered them with a sweep of short black lashes. Her imagination. They’d only just met. Barely exchanged a handful of words, yet longing welled up inside her like a physical ache.
Yes, it had been too long since I’ve been with someone like this. She gave herself a mental shake. I’ve never been with a man like this. Never. Not even close.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
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