THE BACK COVER SAYS........
National bestselling author Amanda Ashley has created a world of seductive,
preternatural creatures whose passions are as limitless-and as dangerous-as
their powers. In this sensual and gripping new novel, love, desire, and
ambition collide in a city that is both home and hunting ground to its
population of darkly irresistible vampires...
HE HAS BECOME WHAT HE ONCE DESTROYED
Edward Ramsey has spent his life hunting vampires. Now he is one of them.
Yet Edward's human conscience-and his heart-compel him to save beautiful
Kelly Anderson, and soon their growing love is his reason for living. And as
the ancient, stunning, and merciless vampire Khira seeks supremacy among Los
Angeles' undead, Edward and his former nemesis Grigori Chiavari, once
Khira's lover, must unite to stop her-before the city, and everything they
cherish, is in her power...AFTER SUNDOWN.
It was late Friday night. Steeped in black despair at the thought of what he had become, Edward Ramsey walked slowly down Hollywood Boulevard, unmindful of the moviegoers, the drunks, the panhandlers, the tourists, the endless parade of transvestites and whores.
Occasionally, he glanced at the faces of the strangers he passed by ~ homeless men and women clad in ragged clothes looking for a place to spend the night, well-dressed couples emerging from the Pantages Theater discussing the play they had just seen, young people talking about the scary movie they had just seen. Hah! They had no idea what scary really was, but he could show them. What would they think, he wondered, what would they do if they knew what he was? Would they recoil in horror and disgust, or stare at him in stunned disbelief?
Last night, the fourth since his life had turned upside down, he had considered awaiting the dawn and stepping out into the bright California sunshine to put an end to his cursed existence. As a new vampire, he would have little resistance to the pure light of day. The touch of the sun on newly made preternatural flesh, a quick burst of flame, and his life would be over, extinguished like the flame of a candle in the wind.
Vampire. How could he be a vampire? He had spent most of his life stalking the undead, destroying them. The Ramsey family had hunted the undead for centuries. Vampires were evil, abhorrent creatures, forever doomed, forever damned.
But he didn't feel evil, didn't feel damned. Only unnatural, as if he were living inside someone else's skin. His senses were heightened: touch, smell, sight, hearing, all were more sensitive, more acute, than ever before. It was amazing, how differently he perceived the world through his newborn vampire senses.
His vision was nothing short of miraculous. He could see great distances, detect minute details that ordinary mortals never saw. Each stitch in the fabric of his coat was visible to his eye. Colors were sharper, richer, almost as if they had texture and depth. Bright light hurt his eyes.
The noise of the city now seemed endless and sometimes deafening! And sometimes so overwhelming he thought he might go insane. How had Grigori Chiavari stood it for so many years? There had to be a way to shut out the constant barrage of speech and music and traffic sounds that bombarded him from every side, but if there was, Ramsey hadn't discovered it yet.
He felt physically stronger than ever before. Indeed, that sense of physical power was so intoxicating that he might have wished he had been a vampire years ago save for the awful craving for blood. The smell of it was all around him on the boulevard, a pulsing flowing river of crimson. It called to him, excited him until he thought he would go crazy. He needed to feed, but didn't know how. The hunger, the pain, had been with him every minute of the last five days, clawing at his vitals in bitter, relentless agony. He had made one clumsy attempt on a streetwalker, but had fled the scene before his goal was accomplished.
He passed a man and a woman, heard the woman gasp, her eyes widening when she saw his face. He knew in that moment that he must look like Death itself. He had seen that expression of horror before, when he had looked into the depths of Grigori Chiavari's hell black eyes and seen his own death lurking there.
Chiavari. Of course! He would go to Chiavari. The vampire had cursed him with the Dark Gift. The vampire could damn well tell him what to do with it.
* * *
There were lights burning in the big house that Grigori Chiavari had bought shortly before marrying Marisa. Hard to believe only a few days had passed since he had seen Alexi Kristov destroyed in this very house. It seemed centuries had passed.
Marisa opened the door at his knock, a warm smile of welcome curving her pale pink lips. "Edward!" she said, extending her hand. "Come in."
"Where is he?" Ramsey demanded.
Ignoring Marisa’s outstretched hand, he swept past her into the hallway, his angry stride carrying him into the living room.
“Where is he?” he demanded again. “Is he here?"
"What do you want, Ramsey?"
Ramsey pivoted at the sound of the vampire’s voice.
Grigori Chiavari glided soundlessly into the room. He exuded an air of self-confidence and invulnerability that Ramsey envied in spite of himself, and never more so than now.
For a moment, the two men looked at each other. They had never been friends. At best, they had been uneasy enemies allied against a common evil. But Alexi Kristov was dead now, his body burned to ashes. But for Grigori's timely but uninvited interference, Ramsey would have been dead, too. Hard to believe he had actually thanked the man for turning him into a monster. He remembered Marisa asking him, shortly after his transformation, if he would rather be dead. He had replied instantly: Of course I would. But, afterward, he had found himself drowning in a wave of indecision. Confused, dazed by all that had happened that night, he had stumbled out of the house, needing to be alone.
The horror of that night was still fresh in his mind. He and Chiavari had spent months hunting Alexi Kristov, months that had culminated in this very house. He recalled it all so clearly, being caught in the vicious web of Kristov's power, helpless to resist the ancient vampire. Captive to Kristov's will, Ramsey had drugged Chiavari, drained him of enough blood to weaken him, and bound him with heavy silver chains. And then he had waited. Waited for Marisa. She had been surprised to see him. . .
“Edward!” she had exclaimed as he stepped in front of her. “You scared me out of a year’s growth. What are you doing here? Edward?”
He had stepped behind her and closed the door. “Go sit down, Marisa.”
“Nothing, and everything.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“You’ll understand everything soon enough.” He had given her a little push and she had stumbled forward.
She had seen Grigori then. Chiavari lay still as death on the bed, bound by a heavy silver chain. The same chain that had once bound Alexi.
“What have you done to him?” she asked.
Edward had pulled a syringe out of his coat pocket. “I put him to sleep, and then I bled him.” He had nodded at the basin on the table beside her chair. It was a large bowl, filled with blood. Grigori’s blood. Enough to weaken him.
“He’s not dead?” Marisa had asked.
He had pushed her toward the chair in the corner. “Sit down, Marisa. Alexi will be here soon.”
“Alexi!” She had looked at him in alarm. “He’s coming here?”
Edward nodded sadly. “I’m sorry, Marisa.”
She sat down heavily. “Why are you doing this?”
“I have no choice.”
“What do you mean? Of course you do” The words had died in her throat. “He’s done something to you, hasn’t he? Oh, Lord, you’re like Antoinette.”
“No. She had no mind of her own. Alexi has left me my mind, Marisa, but he has robbed me of my will. This is worse. I know what I’m doing, and even though I don’t’ want to, I can’t refuse.”
“Fight him, Edward! You’ve got to fight him.”
“I can’t.” He remembered pacing the floor. “He’s too strong. He took my blood, made me take his. I can hear his thoughts in my mind. I can’t shut them out! I can’t shut him out!”
“He’s going to kill us, isn’t he?”
“He’s going to kill Grigori. I’m afraid he has worse things in mind for you.” He had dropped to his knees in front of her and pulled a short piece of rope from his pocket. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
Marisa had jerked her knee up in a hard swift motion. It had caught him under the jaw. His head had snapped backward and she had kicked him in the chest with all her might. Jumping to her feet, she ran for the door, but he had caught her by the ankle.
“Let me go!” she shrieked. “Let me go!”
She had struggled against him, but he was too strong for her. Twisting her arm behind her back, he quickly tied her wrists together, then guided her back to the chair and pushed her into it.
“Marisa, I’m sorry.”
She was shaking now, frightened beyond words.
There had been a ripple in the air, a stirring, as Grigori began to emerge from his drugged sleep. Edward had pulled a stake from inside his coat.
“I won’t,” he said. “Alexi wants that pleasure for himself.”
“Edward, please, please don’t do this. Please. I’d rather be dead than become Alexi’s creature.”
“Marisa.” He had struggled against Alexi’s hold on his mind, but to no avail.
“Please, Edward. He’ll make me like Antoinette.” A soulless zombie, a creature without a mind of her own.
“I can’t fight him,” he had said, panting heavily. “He’s too strong. I can’t help you.” He had doubled over then, wracked by pain. “Stop,” he begged. “Please stop.” He had writhed in pain, all else forgotten, as Alexi’s power washed over him.
And then Alexi was there. Darkness seemed to trail in his wake.
“So,” Alexi said. “We are all together at last. Edward, it’s time I made the woman mine. You will leave the room. Wait for me in the hallway.”
The vampire had sniffed the air, his nose wrinkling as the smell of cold blood reached his nostrils. He jerked his chin toward the bowl. “Get rid of that.” Cold blood. It was an abomination.
“Yes, master,” Edward had replied. Moving like a robot, he had picked up the bowl and moved toward the door.
“Edward,” Marisa cried. “Don’t leave me! Please, help me!”
But he had been helpless. He had tried to turn to face her, his whole being longing to help her, to strike Alexi down, but the vampire’s power was too strong to resist. He had told himself to stop, to turn, but his body refused to obey. One step after another, he had moved toward the door.
He had heard the fear and anguish in her voice, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing. And then he had heard Chiavari’s voice inside his head. “Ramsey, I’ve taken your blood, made you a part of me. Listen to my voice. Draw on my strength. You can fight him. Think! Combine your will with mine. Together we can defeat him.”
“I can’t.” He had stared into the bowl, at the blood that was so dark it was almost black.
“You can!” Grigori’s voice echoed in his mind. “Marisa needs help, help I can’t give her. Damn you! Fight!”
Cradling the bowl in one hand, he had opened the door and stepped into the hallway. He heard Marisa’s shriek of terror as he closed the door behind him. Standing outside the room, he heard Alexi laugh as Marisa struggled against him. He had looked at the blood again, and then lifted the bowl to his lips.
Grigori’s blood had filled him with power, lessened Alexi’s hold on his mind. Bursting into the room, he had hurled himself at Alexi, the stake in his hand driving toward the vampire’s heart. But the vampire was strong and fast and the stake had missed his heart. Alexi had flung him against the wall and buried his fangs in his throat, not to drink, but to kill.
And he would have died, had it not been for Chiavari. Grigori had slain Alexi and then, at Marisa’s urging, forced the Dark Gift upon Edward. He had a vague memory of Grigori holding his bleeding wrist to his lips, urging him to drink. The vampire’s voice had been soft yet compelling, soothing as a mother’s lullaby. “Drink, Edward,” he had urged. “Drink your fill.”
And he had suckled the vampire’s wrist like a babe at its mother’s breast...
He looked into Chiavari's eyes, and knew the other man was also remembering.
"What brings you here, Ramsey?" Chiavari asked brusquely.
Ramsey clenched his hands into tight fists. It galled him to ask Chiavari for help, not only because he thoroughly disliked the man, but because Chiavari had won Marisa’s heart.
Grigori lifted one dark brow. "Ramsey?"
"I'm hungry, damn you."
"Ah," Grigori murmured, and there was a wealth of understanding in that single word.
Ramsey glanced at Marisa, beautiful Marisa with her dark brown hair and deep green eyes and warm sweet smile. Marisa. He had asked her to marry him but she had refused him in favor of Chiavari. Marisa. His gaze was drawn to her throat, to the pulse beating there. Her blood beckoned him. Hot and sweet, it called to him. She had willingly given her blood to Chiavari when he needed it. Ramsey licked his lips. Would she share it now, with him?
Ramsey took a step forward, oblivious to the other vampire, oblivious to everything but the woman's warmth, the rich red blood thrumming through her veins. Just a sip, he thought, just one sip to ease the horrible agony burning through him. And if she would not give it, then he would take it
Marisa stared at Edward. He was as tall as Grigori, with the same trim build. She had never thought of Edward as a handsome man, but now, enhanced with the glamour of the Dark Gift, he looked far younger than his forty-two years. There was a dark sensuality about him that had been lacking before. His pale blond hair had turned a deeper, richer color that gleamed like burnished gold, his ice blue eyes were darker, more intense, aglow now with a fierce need. The faint scar on his cheek only added to his mysterious allure.
His lips parted, and she saw his fangs. She moved quickly to Grigori's side, her heart pounding. She knew vampire blood lust when she saw it.
It is all right, cara. Have no fear.
Grigori’s voice whispered in her mind. It was a bond they shared, the ability to read each other’s minds.
I’m not afraid, she replied, as long as you’re with me.
Ramsey took another step forward, seemingly oblivious to everything but her.
"Ramsey, no." Grigori's voice cut across the room, as sharp and deadly as a blade.
Ramsey came to an abrupt halt. With a shake of his head, he looked around the room, his expression slightly dazed, like a sleepwalker abruptly roused from sleep. "Marisa, I'm sorry."
"It's all right,” she replied gently. “I understand."
Grigori brushed a kiss across Marisa's lips. "I'll be back later, cara. Ramsey, come with me."
Wordlessly, Ramsey turned and followed the vampire out of the house and down the narrow flagstone walkway that led to the garage.
"Have you fed since I brought you across?" Chiavari asked.
"Nothing in five days?"
Ramsey shook his head. He had made two attempts. The second had been on a kitten he had found in an alley. He had held the terrified creature in his hands but, in the end, he had let the animal go. "I don't think I have what it takes to be a vampire," he said ruefully.
"Nonsense. Any man who can track a vampyre to its lair and cut off its head shouldn't have any trouble finding something to drink."
“Are you mocking me?”
“Merely stating a fact.” Chiavari slid behind the wheel of a sleek black Corvette, reached over and opened the passenger door. "Get in."
"Where are we going?"
With a sigh, Ramsey got in the car and closed the door. Once, he had hunted vampires. Now he was hunting humans. "I don't want to kill anyone."
"That's up to you."
"But you told me you killed, in the beginning."
Chiavari switched on the ignition and backed the Corvette out of the garage to the street. "I shall teach you to hunt without killing."
"I don't think I can drink...blood."
"Of course you can. You have done it before."
Ramsey stared into the darkness. Blood. The elixir of life. He had said he didn't think he could drink it, but he knew it was a lie, a taboo that no longer had any meaning. He remembered the warm rich coppery taste of Chiavari’s blood on his tongue; once it had sickened him, now he craved to taste its like again. “Where are we going?”
“My first rule,” Chiavari said. “Never hunt where you live.”
Chiavari drove down to the beach. It was one of his favorite haunts. He parked on a dimly-lit side street near a run-down bar, switched off the engine, turned off the lights.
"You are Vampyre now," Grigori said. "You have powers of which you are not yet aware. Few mortals have the strength to resist you. You have the power to mesmerize them, to compel them do your bidding, to wipe your memory from their minds. You can drink your fill from one and take his memories and his life, as well, or you can drink only enough to sustain your own existence. The choice is yours."
"How have you stood it for so many years, Chiavari?"
"What do you mean?"
"The noise, the light, the constant hunger. Sometimes I think I'm going out of my mind."
"In time, you will learn to block the noise, to shut out the siren call of the heartbeats around you." He pulled the key from the ignition and slid out of the car.
Ramsey followed Chiavari into the dimly lit bar. It was a little after eleven and there were only a handful of people in the place.
Ramsey grimaced at the stench of old smoke and old sweat that flooded his nostrils.
Chiavari took a seat at a back booth, and Ramsey slid in across from him.
"Look around you," Chiavari said. "What do you see?"
Ramsey shrugged. "Men and women talking too loud and drinking too much."
"No. You see prey. Food. You are a young vampire. You will need to feed often, at least for a while. Forget what you were before. Who you were before. You are Vampyre now, and you can never go back to what you were. That life is gone. That man is gone. You have been reborn. Accept it. If you want to live, you will embrace your new life. If not, then go out and meet the sun and end it. There is no worse hell than being caught between worlds."
Ramsey clenched his hands as he listened to the vampire speak. They were hard words; hard to believe, harder to accept. He looked at the other patrons. Once, he had protected them from the undead, now they needed protecting from him. In his mind, he saw the chasm between himself and the rest of humanity grow deeper, wider, saw it fill with an endless river of warm rich crimson.
Vampire. I am a vampire. I must drink blood to survive.
Chiavari regarded him through narrowed eyes. "Are you strong enough to be Vampyre, Ramsey, or should I have let you die?"
Ramsey thought of the night Chiavari had brought him across, how tenaciously he had clung to the vampire’s arm, to the pulsing promise of life. "I want to live."
Chiavari nodded. "Then you must accept what you are. You do not have to be like Kristov. You can be a man with a peculiar life-style, or you can be a monster. You must make the choice, as does every man, mortal or otherwise.”
Ramsey stared at the cross tattooed on his right palm. "Damned," he murmured. “Forever damned.”
Grigori lifted one brow in amusement. "You did not think yourself damned when you killed my kind.” He grinned faintly. “Our kind. Why are you damned now?"
"Because of what I am!"
"Murder is murder, Ramsey, whether you are killing Vampyres or killing humans for their blood. It is all the same, only the reasons are different. You can be as good, or as bad, as you wish."
Ramsey snorted. "You don't understand."
"No, it is you who do not understand. But you will. If you live long enough. Now, look around and decide who will be your prey."
"How do I decide?"
Grigori shrugged. "Probe their minds. Find the one who is most susceptible to your power. Plant the suggestion in their mind that they are ready to go home."
"I can't do that."
"You can. Try."
Ramsey glanced around the room. A middle-aged man sat alone at the far end of the bar. There was an elderly couple in a front booth, a couple of young punks playing pool in the back. His gaze settled on a woman standing beside a cigarette machine. She was about twenty-five, dressed in a pair of jeans and a bulky red sweater. Her hair was brown, her eyes blue. He stared at her, wondering how to go about probing her mind when, as if a door had suddenly opened, he was aware of her thoughts. She was recently divorced, lonely, searching for something to ease the pain.
He swore under his breath, exhilarated and frightened by this strange new power. How often in the past had he wished he could read another’s mind? But to actually have that abilitycould he actually impose his will on this strange woman?
Look at me. Ramsey sent the thought to her, felt a thrill of satisfaction when she turned in his direction. She regarded him a moment, then smiled uncertainly. Come to me.
Slowly, she began to walk toward him, her expression slightly puzzled.
"Good evening," Ramsey said.
"Hello.” She had a sexy, breathy voice. “Have we met before?”
Ramsey gazed deep into her eyes. He had never had time for women, or for love. He had spent his whole life hunting vampires, moving from town to town, country to country. Like most hunters, he had never married. Families all too easily became victims, hostages, pawns in an endless war.
A curious sensation swept through him as he felt his mind connect with hers, felt her will bend to his. Felt her desire reach out to him. It was something he had never felt before, never known before. Women had respected him, trusted him, confided in him. They had never desired him. And even now, it wasn’t him she wanted, but the creature he had become. An immortal creature clothed with the vampire’s mystic allure.
"Come," he said. "I'll walk you to your car."
She nodded, and he took her arm. Ramsey glanced over his shoulder to make sure Grigori was with them.
Outside, some of Ramsey's confidence waned. The woman stood beside him, her expression blank.
He looked at Grigori. "What do I do now?"
Grigori led them into the alley that ran between the bar and a vacant lot that was overgrown with weeds and littered with empty beer cans and bottles. He gestured at the woman, who stood unmoving, like a robot waiting for instruction. "She is in your power now. You can do whatever you wish."
"But how do I...you know."
"Think only of her blood. Listen. Can you not hear it flowing like sweet honey through her veins?"
Grigori took the woman in his arms, ran his fingertips ever so lightly over her cheek, down the length of her neck.
"Smell the blood," Grigori said, and he felt his own fangs lengthen as he bent over the woman. Her head fell back, exposing the tender skin of her throat. “You must always be gentle,” he said, his voice changing, growing deeper, rougher as the hunger within him stirred to life. “Human flesh is so very fragile." The woman made a small sound of pleasure as Grigori’s mouth closed over her throat, his fangs piercing the skin. He took only a sip, and then he thrust the woman into Ramsey's arms. "She is yours. Take her."
Ramsey stared at the woman, at the single drop of crimson sparkling on her throat. “What about...how do you know her blood is...don’t you worry about disease?”
“You would know if her blood was unclean.”
Ramsey nodded. Feeling as awkward and self-conscious as a boy on his first date, he gathered the woman into his embrace. She didn’t resist. Pliant as a rag doll, she allowed him to hold her. She smelled of soap and perfume and cheap brandy. And blood. It called to him like a Siren's song, loud, insistent. Irresistible. He felt an ache in his gums as his fangs lengthened.
With a low growl, he sank his fangs into the warm tender skin of her throat, felt the thick richness of her blood fill his mouth.
“Gently,” Grigori admonished. “It can be a pleasant experience for her, as well, if you choose to make it so.”
Ramsey drank, disgusted by what he was doing, yet compelled to take more and more, overcome with the warmth of it, the way it eased the pain that had clawed at him. He drank her memories, her strength, her dreams. The sound of her heartbeat echoed in his ears. How had he ever thought such an act repulsive? Her life filled him until he felt drunk with it. And still he wanted more. Wanted it all.
"Enough, Ramsey. Enough!"
Dazed, drugged with blood and a sense of unlimited power, Ramsey lifted his head, his lips drawn back in a silent snarl. The woman was his. He would not share her.
"Enough," Grigori said again.
Ramsey looked down at the woman in his arms. Her heartbeat was faint, her face pale. She stared up at him through vacant eyes.
"What have I done?" he moaned. “What have I done?”
"Only what you had to do."
"Is she...will she die?"
Horror-stricken, Ramsey shoved the woman into Chiavari's arms and backed away. He dragged a hand over his mouth, grimaced when he saw the blood there. The thrill he had felt earlier was gone, replaced by a sense of horror and self-disgust. "I can't do this."
"You can, and you will. Abstaining will only make the pain worse. Waiting, trying to fight it, will only make it harder for you to control the Hunger. And when you are out of control, people will die."
"How have you stood it for so long?" Ramsey asked bitterly. "How have you stood the separateness, the aloneness?"
Grigori took a deep breath and loosed it in a long slow sigh. "Being Vampyre is not for the weak. There are drawbacks, but they grow fewer as the years pass. And the advantages far outweigh them."
"Advantages!" Ramsey scoffed. "What advantages?"
"Think, Ramsey. Think of all the things I have seen, the changes in the world, the inventions. I have powers you cannot imagine. As for the other, the loneliness, the separateness..." He shrugged. "One can get used to anything."
"Easy for you to say."
"Ramsey, I could have killed you years ago. But I did not because I have always admired your tenacity, your will to live. Do not disappoint me now."
Ramsey gestured at the woman in Chiavari's arms. "Will she be all right?"
"She will be fine."
"I...” Ramsey looked away, embarrassed by the need that had driven him to Chiavari. “Thanks for your help."
Grigori nodded. "Give yourself time, Ramsey. Call me if you need me."
Ramsey grunted softly. Going to Chiavari for help had been one of the most difficult things he had ever done, not only because it had pricked his pride to ask the man for help, but because it had meant seeing Marisa again, having her see what he had become.
Marisa. Once he had hoped she would he his. "I would have thought you’d have brought her across by now,” he remarked.
"No. She wants to wait a while, to spend time with her family while she can." Grigori shrugged. "There is no hurry."
Ramsey nodded, jealous because Marisa had chosen Chiavari over him, because Chiavari would have her love for a dozen lifetimes to come.
"Is she happy?"
Ramsey glanced at the woman in the vampire's arms. "Thanks again for youryour help."
"Give it time, Ramsey," Grigori said again.
"Yes, time." Ramsey smiled ruefully as he turned and walked away. He had plenty of time.