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Night's Sweet Caress

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Age : 55
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PostSubject: A Matter of Choice   Tue 13 Oct 2009, 8:09 pm

Author..........Night's Sweet Caress


Rating...........Rated "R" for language, violence, and sexuality


Disclaimer......I do not own anyone in this story. Any similarities to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Summary........Free, free at last! Vampire Amanda Drake grinned with insane pleasure as she surveyed the peaceful Florida coastal town. At last, she had escaped from a terrifying imprisonment. Now she could again stalk the glorious night and finally sate a new, insatiable thirst--for revenge. Amanda would turn these moonlit beaches into a savage hunting ground. She would drain the life and soul of its unsuspecting inhabitants and render it her eternal kingdom of darkness. Then, she would teach her traitorous brother the [u]real[/u meaning of undying passion: ravening fury -- and endless terror.



Prologue

They pushed the heavy crate carefully, as if handling unstable explosives. As the three men shoved from the side and ends, a fourth stood back and supervised, holding a Bible and a large cross in front of him. He alternately cursed their efforts and recited the Lord’s Prayer as they carefully, fearfully, pushed the ebony crate. It slid slowly on the deck, sticking every few inches as it approached the side of the freighter. A foot from the edge, it stopped.
“It won’t go no further, Cap’n.” One of the men panted with exertion and fear. He looked up, squinting against the bright sun, to see the bulky figure of the ship’s master outlined against the stark blue sky.
The captain roared at them angrily. “Make it go!” He took a step closer and stopped. Close to the box it felt like winter, cold and dark; from this distance he could feel waves of frigid anger that chilled his blood and wretched at his stomach. He stepped back hastily.
“Get Connors up here.” He pushed the nearest sailor toward the hold and stepped back into the heat of a summer’s day.
“Aye, sir.” The boy ran off quickly, grateful for even a short reprieve.
The captain could feel their eyes on him, watching, always watching for any sign of weakness. They were desperate now. If he faltered and allowed his voice, expression, or demeanor to show the slightest hint of doubt or fear, the crew would break. They would run and hide until it was too late—for them and for him. He raised the Bible, opened it at random and held it as a shield, reading loudly:

“For the morning is to them even as the shadow of death: if one knows them, they are in terrors of the shadow of death.”

He slammed it shut on Job 24, wondering how in the hell he had turned to that particular passage.

The boy returned slowly, his footsteps dragging. He raked his fingers through his sun-bleached blond hair and his eyes slid reluctantly to the casket. “Connors won’t come, sir.”

“It wasn’t a request, Wilkins.” The captain’s growl became a furious whisper. “You tell that cowardly son of a bitch that if he doesn’t get his black ass up here right now, I’ll throw him off next.”

The first mate’s head popped into view from below decks. It was a toss-up as to which he feared more, the captain or the crate. He swallowed audibly as the captain glared at him, then he climbed reluctantly up the ladder.

“We only need a little push.” The captain lowered his voice persuasively, watching as six feet four inches of muscle sidled crabwise across the deck. “Just one little push and it will go over.”

Connor’s eyes rolled fearfully until the whites gleamed in the bright sunlight. The bitter stink of fear drifted toward the captain and he choked back the sharp words he wanted to scream. Instead, he walked over and put a consoling hand on the first mate’s arm. Now was not the time to bully and bluster.

“C’mon, mate. With all of us pushing it will be over in a second.” He coaxed the big man forward, toward the gap in the rail. The others closed in behind them. They faced the big box and the day darkened. A small cloud scudded in from the north.

“We can’t do this, Cap’n. She’ll get us for this. She’ll kill us all!” Connors backed up a step and bumped into one of the crewmen. He jerked around violently.

“Shut up and push that damned box over, you stupid coward. If you’re scared now, think how you’ll feel once it gets dark,” the captain snapped, his fist clenched. The deck rocked under them, but no one noticed.

Larger, darker clouds, as if in reminder of the darkness to come, moved unnaturally fast to join the first. The wind cooled and freshened noticeably. A soft creak jerked their attention back to the deck.

“It moved!” Connors shrieked wildly and led the rush toward the hatch. The captain was a step behind them. He used the heavy Bible in his hands to swing ferociously at the nearest back. It connected solidly and sent a crewman reeling into Connors, who tripped and stared at the chain reaction.

“Stop!” The captain roared. The habit of obedience was strong. They turned back reluctantly. As he continued, his eyes and voice had a soft, hypnotic intensity. “A squall’s comin’ in. We got no radio, no help, and the sun is going down. We can’t make Mobile by nightfall. If she has anything to say about it, we won’t make port at all. She’ll kill us all tonight. We’ll just be another ghost ship, driftin’ into port. She’ll kill us just like she killed the others, Sid and Tom and Johnny-boy. Look around! Ain’t but half of us left. We got to get her now before she can stop us.”

Connors moved first. He was not known as the bravest member of the crew. His size and strength had protected him from all but the most foolhardy of brawlers, and his willingness and good humor had protected him from the sneers that would have followed a smaller coward. His massive shoulders squared, and his dark eyes were cold as he moved hesitantly toward the ominous black coffin. His feet scuffed the deck and he almost tripped, but he kept moving. He scrubbed his wet palms on his jeans and panted in fear as the captain and crew stared after him with awe and terror. He took a deep breath and held it, squatted down and pushed his shoulder against the crate.

Lightning cracked from the sky, so close that the ozone fouled the air. The captain roused himself with a start.

“You goin’ to let him do it on his own?” He moved the crew with cuffs and curses, forcing them to the edge of the deck. They shoved tentatively at the box.

It moved slowly at first, rasping across the deck like a file across teeth. Connors gasped for breath and the stench turned his face yellow.

“I’m gonna be sick.” Tears ran down his face as he gasped out the words.

“Then puke on the box,” the captain snarled back.

They struggled to push it overboard. The gloom increased as the squall spattered the first raindrops onto the pitching deck.

The crate gave way unexpectedly as the deck lurched with a sudden wave. The wind blew the sour, acrid smell of death into their faces. Connors gasped and leaned over the box as it teetered unsteadily on the edge. He retched violently, tears leaking from under his closed lids. His hand, groping blindly for support, brushed the slick, cold coffin and stuck. Unbalanced, it toppled over as if in slow motion. His flesh stretched where it touched the ornate box, as if it had suddenly been fastened with some quick setting glue. He took one step forward, then another, a look of disbelief on his face.

Connors screamed horribly as his hand and arm were pulled forward. His body leaned over the side and his feet did a macabre dance as he fought frantically to stop his fall. His free arm waved wildly. His companions grabbed for him, reaching through the railing as he was pulled over the side. The captain managed to catch his hand, but it was wrenched from his grip as the huge sailor fell, still attached by his skin to the shiny casket. His scream ended suddenly as he hit the water, then started again as both man and crate bobbed to the surface.

“Help me! God! Please! Help me!” His words were interrupted as waves splashed and broke over his head. One arm waved desperately. His body swung around and he kicked at the wood.

Let go. Let go my hand. Sweet Mary, Mother of God, it’s got my hand! Dear Jesus, help me!” he choked as a wave broke over his head.

The captain screamed impotently as the coffin drifted away. “Lower the boat. Burt, Jim, go get him!”

No one moved.

He took one step toward the lifeboat, then glanced back, over the water. He was the first to see the triangular fin cutting through the choppy water.

“Shark!” The word ripped through his throat and burst into the air.

“Shark!” Three voices screamed discordantly as the horrible spell was broken. Fear battled with relief, and lost. This was a natural creature, something that could be fought. One man rushed to the nearest life ring and flung it over the rail. The captain bellowed orders as he watched the fin close in on the screaming man. Only Connors seemed unaware of this new danger. He still beat wildly on the coffin with his free hand while the other twitched and writhed against the dark wood, black on black. The captain screamed at him again.

“Shaaarrrk!”

The fin was only a yard away when Connor’s hand came free. He flailed at the water and backstroked into the ragged jaws of the shark.

He sank suddenly, and came up screaming. One arm ended at the elbow and blood gushed from the stump.

“Lower the boat. Faster,” the captain yelled.

Connors was jerked under again. This time his screams were weaker as he bobbed to the surface. The boat hit the water and the captain realized for the first time that no one had been brave enough to go down in it. He watched the small craft toss aimlessly in the waves. Even through the rough water, the captain’s practiced eye could make out a spreading red stain.

Connors screamed one more time, weakly, hopelessly, a final protest against death. His body surfaced a yard from the lifeboat, face down and inert. A wave washed over him and he turned slowly, almost weightlessly. His head was pulled under suddenly, and they watched in terror as what was left of his body turned upward.

One leg was gone. Shreds of tattered flesh hung from the empty, gleaming white hip joint. The other leg ended at mid-thigh. A shaft of splintered bone poked out from torn, bloody flesh.

The captain turned away. He tried to control his nausea, but it was a losing battle. As he vomited over the side, the eerie broke around them. The ship pitched violently. Rain stung his eyes as he searched the sea for that awful black box. He found it and watched, entranced. Sounds of sea, storm, and men faded as the realization hit him.

There was one clear patch of blue water, untouched by rain or gray foaming waves. In it, the coffin drifted tranquilly south, driven by the storm, but not touched by it.

The hairs on his arms writhed as the captain turned resignedly back to his ship. He knew what was to come. He flinched as lightning leapt from the lifeboat to the sky and thunder crashed through his ears. Choking billows of smoke brought tears to his eyes.

He was dimly aware of the bustle around him as the word was passed that it had been thrown off the ship and the crew came up from below. They were still scared but they were ready to take their posts against the storm. Only half the men he had left shore with still survived. Someone asked for orders and he shook his head wearily. There was no use.

His eyes turned back to the sea. It had been a good life, mostly. Maybe a little lonely, but he had few regrets. His wife was long gone. His only son was an accountant for a tax firm; a job the captain could neither understand nor approve. He shrugged, regretting briefly that he hadn’t tried harder. They had hated and feared the sea. Now he wished he had not been so contemptuous of their fear. He tried to recall their faces, but nothing came.

His eyes closed sadly as the lightning struck again. The ship shook at the fuel tanks blew. There was one instant of searing heat and anguish before he died. The storm raged on as the ship sank.



The lone survivor chuckled softly from the safety of her earth-filled coffin.

Now to get herself out of this mess. Luckily, they weren’t far from land when they had tossed her over. Her bed rocked gently, almost comfortably, but she knew the deadly threat that moving water represented to her. At least she didn’t have to worry about bad weather. She chuckled again at the thought.

First, transportation. She would have to locate a sympathetic mind, control it, and arrange a rescue before…For the first time she realized her mistake. The small rain clouds had been over land when she had called them. She had brought them down from the north and prodded them into becoming a storm. Now it was driving her south into the Gulf of Mexico.

Away from land. Away from help.

Her mind reached out, as it had for the cloud, but this time she was searching for a human mind. She had to find one before she was out of range. Her thoughts flew north to Pensacola, only fifty miles away. She searched desperately, but the few susceptible minds would take too long to control. She did find one candidate, but when she investigated further it was unacceptable. It would take too long to break it out of the asylum. She moved east along the coast, found one that might work, then hesitated, torn with indecision. Should she put all her effort and the little remaining time into trying to subdue one that might work, or should she move on to find a better one?

Something drove her on. If she had to come back, there might still be time.

She found what she needed in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. Her mind leapt with joy as she recognized the mind as she would have recognized her own signature.

“Justin! Her mind screamed joyously. “Brother, I am here. I need you. Come to me.” She commanded powerfully.
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Wolf's Lonely Cry

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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Thu 15 Oct 2009, 2:04 pm

My oh my! What do we have here? You have been busy Night's, whipping up another wonderful tale for us to enjoy. Going by the Prologue, it seems that this is going to be one hell of a story. I already have got goose-bumps, and the good parts haven't started yet. Please say that you'll be updating soon? Very Happy cheers tongue
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Avenging Angel

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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Thu 15 Oct 2009, 6:33 pm

Night's, your imagination never fails to amaze us. From just the summary and prologue, we can already tell that this tale is going to be one of your best yet. And that's saying something, considering what you've accomplished already. Vampires, lots of blood, and revenge. What more could we possibly ask for? How about another update, pretty please? Very Happy
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mcpheever63

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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Fri 16 Oct 2009, 5:05 pm

The supernatural seems to be a genre you're very comfortable with. It shows in the way every thing just seems to flow together seamlessly. I love the premise, revenge is always a dish best served cold, lol. It will be interesting to see how Amanda gets her revenge against her brother. Most excellent!
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Cupid's Crooked Arrow

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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Fri 16 Oct 2009, 9:39 pm

Nice start! Why do I think of flashing fangs, dripping blood, and people dying when I read this? affraid But this is so good, I cannot stop reading it.
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Voice In The Darkness
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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Sat 17 Oct 2009, 10:33 pm

Another wonderful prologue that can serve as a primary example for other writers. Really, your reputation here is very, very high and this is another piece of proof it is well deserved. You captured the scene exceptionally well

“We can’t do this, Cap’n. She’ll get us for this. She’ll kill us all!” …. something tells me this is a fact…..tell us more, NSC.
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missime66

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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Sun 18 Oct 2009, 11:13 pm

What an amazing start to what will be an unforgetable story! Your imagination never ceases to amaze me! How do you come up with such unique story ideas?!

Awesome job!

cheers
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Night's Sweet Caress

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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Sun 25 Oct 2009, 4:49 pm

My thanks go out to everyone who has read and commented on my latest story. It is very appreciated.

I hope that everyone will continue to enjoy this story of horror, betrayal, and love. Any constructive criticism is most welcome.



Chapter 1:


Ash’s Book Shop was Ashlee Dianne Truman’s pride and joy. Six rooms of mystery and excitement, information and imagination, romance and history. Over one hundred thousand books, each with its own story, each with something different to say and a unique way of saying it. It didn’t matter that they were used and sometimes worn; someone, somewhere, would enjoy them again.

The double glass doors led from the outside into the main room, which was dedicated to best sellers and historical romances. A doorway to the right led into Ash’s office, with the counter parallel to the back wall so that she could see anyone who came in. Her desk faced the far wall and was usually covered inches deep in papers, bills, catalogues, advertising posters, and pamphlets. The children’s section filled the rest of the room with books and comics. On the floor were boxes labeled Goodwill and Vet’s Hosp, and occasionally, boxes of unfiled books.

Left of the main room was a short hall that led to a room filled with modern romances. Straight through the main room was another hallway with three rooms leading from it. The rooms and hall held stacks and racks of horror and occult, science fiction and westerns, mysteries, adventure, and nonfiction.

These six rooms comprised half of Ash’s life. Sometimes she thought it was the best half.

Business often picked up in the late afternoon. This time of day customers would stop by on their way home from work to pick up a book for the evening or the weekend. Friends would drop in for a minute and stay for an hour chatting with Ash and each other and choosing books while she waited on customers. It made for a congenial atmosphere, although waiting on customers and chatting with friends at the same time created a certain amount of confusion.

“Did you find what you wanted, Miss Watson?” Ash turned from her desk to the counter and smiled at the slender, middle-aged woman.

“Oh, yes, Ashlee, but if you get in any new Harlequins, especially about nurse, will you hold them for me? I may not be able to pick them up right away, but…”

“I’m glad you reminded me. A woman called this morning and she’s bringing in six old ones that she wants to trade. I know they’re old, but there may be some that you haven’t read. Would you like for me to hold them for you? I’ll give you first refusal on them if you’d like.”

“I better not. Thanks, but I could never take that many at one time.” The woman looked almost guilty as she refused the offer. “Jerry wouldn’t like that.”

The man by the window shifted impatiently and asked, “Is it a date then?”

Ash ignored the question and looked at the woman sympathetically, wishing there were some way she could ease her discomfort. She had never met “Jerry,” but she knew the situation as well as an outsider could. Elaine Watson was obviously terrified of him, and it showed all the more for what she never said. It was a sad situation, her moving in with her sister’s husband and taking over the role of “mommy”, after the children’s mother skipped town with another man. Now her big brown eyes, almost hidden behind plain brown glasses, seemed to waver and blur behind the thick lenses. The secondhand paperback books that were Ash’s specialty usually ran in price from seventy-five cents to $3.50, but she had never known her to choose one that cost over $2.50. Those were getting harder and harder to find nowadays. Even used books were expensive, and Elaine had read and returned for credit most of the cheaper ones.

“You may still have some credit. Let me check.” The storeowner made a show of going through her account cards and came up with one triumphantly. Fifteen cents. “That’s right, you have $1.50. Remember, you brought in several books last week, didn’t you?”

“It was only two books, and they were just some that the kids had lying around. I don’t think it would be that much.” She looked suspicious of the sudden windfall, so Ash put on her most bored expression.

“That explains it then. That boy of yours just loves science fiction and we give top prices for those. Most people today don’t seem to want to trade them in. Are these the only ones you want today?”

“Yes, I guess so. And if you would hold one or two of the ones coming in, I’d love to at least look at them.” Her initial suspicion trailed off into vague pleasure. Ash suppressed a flutter of irritation. The poor woman really shouldn’t be let out alone. She needed someone around to protect her. It would have been just as easy for someone to take advantage of her as to help her. Why was she so damn humble anyway? There was a woman who should have had a lot of pride. She had brought her children in more than once, and a nicer, more well-behaved bunch of kids would be hard to find. They had trooped in behind their “mother”, the oldest carefully carrying the youngest. Neat clean kids in clean old clothes, they ranged in age from less than a year old to fourteen. They didn’t play hide and seek between the racks, or run through the store yelling and screaming. They treated books with respect. They even agreed almost quietly on two books among the five of them, and watched with shy eyes as their mommy dug deep into her purse to pay for them.

“Ash? Would you like to go sailing after dinner tonight?” David broke in again. His fingers beat a rapid tattoo on the window.

Ash thought about those quiet children with their big, haunted eyes, about the youngest girl who had a hunger for words in her face, and about the children’s books and comics that hadn’t been selling well lately.

“Miss Watson, would you mind doing me a favor?” Ash drawled the words with Southern sugar on them. “It’s just a small thing really. I have some comic books and fairy tales that I need to get rid of to make space for more that are coming in. They aren’t really appropriate for the Veteran’s Hospital.” She moved over to the children’s section and sorted rapidly through the racks. “Would you mind dropping them in the trash on your way out? Or maybe your kids could give them away at school. Kids might enjoy reading even these old things.” She watched as Elaine left with a dazed smile on her face.

“If you keep that up, you’ll wind up giving away the whole store.”

Reluctantly, she turned back to David Cook, her friend and neighbor. He was leaning against the window frame, outlined in a splash of sunlight. The right side of his profile was a study in planes and angles, the left was in shadow. He was a little above medium height, with brown hair and brown eyes, and the scowl on his face looked permanently engraved. She stared at him accusingly.

He tried once more. “We can talk over dinner.”

“Talk? About what? My land, my beach, my home?”

“I just want another two acres, Ash. It’s not that much and—“

“Beachfront. You want two acres of my beach and you can forget it. It’s not for sale.” She watched his eyes light up.

“That’s what you said three years ago,” he countered, “about the land my house is built on.”

“I’m beginning to think I should have stuck to it,” she muttered. He was enjoying this, the bastard. He had probably been one of those rotten brats who would hit a beehive with a stick at the church picnic, just to see what would happen. There was something in him that liked stirring things up.

“How much beach can one person use? Besides, you’ll always have access, just like now, you know that. What’s the big deal anyway?”

“It’s my land, that’s the big deal. My grandfather’s land that he left me in his will. I already sold you almost half of it. You’ve got plenty of beachfront. Build your dock on that.” She shook her head firmly and settled her bulk on the stool behind the counter.

“I told you I had the contractor out. That little piece of land is just perfect for a dock. The deep water comes in close and there’s a ridge of rock just under the sand. It’s just perfect.” He leaned forward urgently as he spoke.

“It’s just perfectly mine and it’s going to stay mine and that’s all there is to it.” She said flatly.

“C’mon, Ash. You can use the boats any time you want.”

“Boats? How many are you going to have? And how big is this monstrosity supposed to be?”

“Just big enough for a few tiny boats. You know how you love to sail. You can take the sailboat out any time you like. We can take moonlight sails from our own dock. Maybe a little champagne, swimming off the boat. You’ll love it.” His voice lowered intimately.

“No.” She swiveled the stool around, still shaking her head. He walked over to the counter and circled it to face her.

“Why not?” The tone was reasonable, but she could see a muscle jumping in his cheek.

“I don’t want to look out my window and see a dock and six boats instead of beach. I don’t want the gas scum fouling my water, and I don’t want to borrow your damn boats!” She smiled at him sweetly and contrarily swiveled the cair away. He circled the counter the other way.

“Three boats. Just three. One sailboat, I figure about a thirty footer; one small power boat, something fast; and one for deep-sea fishing.” His brown eyes gazed deeply into hers and his voice was soft and intimate.

“No.” She matched his tone perfectly.

“I’ll give you more than it’s worth. Whatever you ask.” He had given up on that approach and now he was all business.

“Don’t you dare start flashing your money at me! I don’t need it.”

“You didn’t seem to mind my money three years ago. I paid you a fair price for that land. You couldn’t have started this bookstore without it.” He fired back at her.

“Which is the only reason I sold it to you. I didn’t know you’d try to take the rest. What will you want next? My house?”

“Ash.” He stopped suddenly and took a deep breath. “We’ll about it later, at dinner, okay?”

“I told you,” she replied sullenly. “I’m on a diet.”

“You’re always on a diet. What is it this time, carrots and celery?” His amusement showed with a quirk of an eyebrow. He had the naturally trim figure she would have done anything to get. Anything but diet, she thought.

“Nope. It’s supposed to be a health diet. Vitamins, minerals, and herbs. I think the real idea is to fill you so full of pills that there’s no room for real food.”

“How long have you been on it?”

“About a week.”

“Then you need a break. Have you lost any weight yet?”

“If you have to ask.” She sighed, thinking of all the hungry hours ahead. They stretched into days and weeks and months of diets, exercise, and starvation. Was this any way to live? What would one good meal hurt?

“So why do you always seem to start a new diet the week before I ask you out to dinner?” He noticed her start of surprise and wondered idly which nerve he had struck this time. Ash was so touchy about her weight and diets that it was almost impossible to avoid hurting her.

“Where did you want to go?” she asked, ignoring his question. She knew very well why it was that she started a new diet a week or so before he asked her out. Maybe one day he would figure it out too, but until then, she would enjoy his company.

“There’s a new Italian place on the Strip,” he replied, referring to the Miracle Strip Parkway that ran along the Florida coast to the Gulf of Mexico. “I thought we might try it out. Anipasto, veal parmesan, maybe linguini with clam sauce?” He watched the hunger hit her eyes and smiled. He would have interesting company tonight for dinner, and so what if no one’s head turned to watch her walk by? Ash’s good-natured humor and wit would more than make up for her almost double chin. “What time do you close up shop tonight?”

“Seven. I’ll have to go home and change.” She thought wistfully of the new dress in her closet. It was a size smaller than she was. She had bought it for inspiration. Could she have lost enough weight in one week to try to squeeze into it? Not bloody likely, but she would try it on just to make sure. There was always her old navy blue standby, if worse came to worst.

“Seven-thirty, your place. And we’ll talk about the land.”

He opened the door for a young man in uniform with an armful of books, then kept it open as an attractive black woman came in behind him. Ash kept a wary eye on David and the woman as they stopped to chat. Beverly Wilson was a good friend, as was David, but just because she liked them both didn’t mean that they liked each other.

The customer had brought in books to sell and Ash divided them absently into two piles, one larger than the other, but her eyes kept wandering to the door. Even at this distance, she could see the bulge of muscle in David’s arm as he propped the door open, and the way the black shirt he wore was pulled tight across his chest.

“I only buy the ones I think I can sell.” She reluctantly turned her attention back to the airman, then watched with relief as David and Bev said goodbye to each other, apparently on good terms. Beverly strode to the desk, casually pushed some papers aside, and perched on the edge. She waited impatiently, one foot tapping the air, while Ash chatted with the customer.

“I’ll give you $7.50 cash. Or, if you’d like credit, that’ll be $4.15 in science fiction and five dollars even in everything else.”

“What about the rest of them?” he asked without much hope.

“I can’t use them. Some of them are good sellers, but I already have several copies. You could take them to another store. There’s one in Mary Esther. Do you know where the cutoff is?”

“Uh, I don’t think so. I’m still pretty new here.”

“Where are you from?”

“Minnesota. It’s beautiful there, but this is incredible. Like something in a movie. I’ve never seen water so clear or sand so white.”

“We call it sugar sand. Did you know that it’s so different from other sand that geologists gave it a special name? Pensacola white. It’s the only place in the world you can find it. I’m Ashlee Truman, by the way.”

“Mike Boyd. I go to the beach every chance I get. I hear the fishing is good, too. I’ve never been surf fishing before, though.”

“The fishing’s great, but if you go out surf fishing keep a sharp eye out for sharks.” The shiver caught her by surprise. She glanced at the air conditioning vent, then smiled and nodded as he looked at her doubtfully. “No big deal, just be careful.” Before he left, she gave him directions to the other bookstore.

She turned back to see Bev swing her long legs moodily from the desk and begin to pace, ignoring Ash’s annoyance as she straightened the papers Bev had pushed aside.

Beverly Wilson was one of the top real estate agents in the area. Her clothes were tailored to make that tall, slat-thin figure look stylish instead of skinny. Her white bouse were blindingly bright and complimented her glinting teeth and the blue-white corneas of her dark brown eyes. Her tan skirt and jacket set off her chocolate brown skin and black fuzzy hair. If she hadn’t chosen to stay in the Florida Panhandle area and be a real estate agent, she might have made it as a model, but it was her keen intelligence and sly sense of humor that Ash liked best about her.

“I was going to ask if you wanted to share a pizza tonight.” Bev’s voice was rich and deep.

Ash didn’t answer for a moment, then asked, “What’s the matter?”

“Matter? Why does anything have to be the matter? I just felt like a pizza.”

“C’mon, Bev. It’s Friday night. Are you and Doug having problems again?”

“We don’t have problems. I have problems. He thinks everything’s great.” She leaned against the window where David had been earlier. “He just doesn’t understand how hard I worked to get where I am.”

“And you don’t understand how he could be happy working at a gas station the rest of his life.”

“Well, I don’t! He could be anything he wanted to, if he would just shut up with that ‘down-trodden Black’ routine. But he just keeps pumping gas and complaining how unfair the world is, and how hard he has to work.”

“But you keep going out with him,” Ash commented.

“He’s such a hunk! How can I help it? And he’s not stupid, he’s just…”

“Lazy?”

“No! You know how hard he works…” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the teasing note in Ash’s voice. “Okay, maybe he is, in a way. And I know you’ve heard it all before. Anyway, I’m going to back off for awhile. Maybe I’ll even find someone else.” Her generous lips pouted as she stepped back into the shadows, away from the hot sunlight streaming through the glass.

“You know, Bev, Doug isn’t going to change, and neither are you. When it comes to ambition, you have more than your share and from what I’ve seen, Doug has none at all. If you don’t find someone else right away, maybe the break will be good for you.” Her voice caught as she blinked, squinting against the glare.

“What’s wrong? Do I have a smudge on my nose?”

“No, it’s nothing.”

“C’mon, Ash. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” The light softened suddenly as dark clouds rolled in.

“Nothing. It was just a trick of the light. For a minute there, it looked like I could see straight through your skin to the bones. It…I…I…” She took a deep breath and tried again. “The light and shadows made your face look like a skull.”

“Hey, kid, you’ve been on that diet too long. Your eyes are playing tricks on you.”

“Yeah, that must be it.” Ash shrugged, “Maybe you’re right about the diet.”

“Speaking of diets, you decided to go out with David tonight. Don’t tell me, let me guess. You started a new diet a week ago, so David is probably getting tired of his latest little cutie, right?” Her voice was sarcastically sympathetic.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Only to those who really care about you. Don’t worry; David will never notice.”

“Ouch. That’s hitting below the belt,” Ash complained.

“This from someone; who just gave me a lecture on incompatibility and the virtues of being alone?”

“Yeah, well. Maybe I was talking to myself.”

“If you weren’t you should have been. And I could add a few things, like, if he doesn’t like you the way you are, then losing weight won’t help.”

“I’m not losing weight for him,” she protested loudly. “I’m doing it for myself. He just serves as inspiration. And I need a lot of inspiration.”

“Don’t we all.” Bev’s lewd smile gave the words double meaning. “And Doug is mine.”

“Then why don’t you call him and get inspired tonight?” Ash grinned back.

“I will if you will.”

“Forget it then. David and I are pals.” The last word came out with more force and bitterness than she had intended. “He thinks I’m just one of the ‘guys’.”

“David Cook thinks anyone over a size ten is ‘just one of the guys’.”

“Oh. Bev, I don’t even know if it’s David that I really want. I don’t think we could ever make anything permanent out of it. And maybe that’s okay, too. Not everything has to be permanent. But I don’t know if it’s me he really cares about; or just entertainment for an evening.”

“Ash honey, I’ve been out with men like that. And to them sex is about as important as a sneeze; it’s just more fun. You deserve more than that.”

“Damn right I do! But until I get it, I guess I’ll go out with David. And I’ll worry about sneezing if I catch cold.”

“Just don’t run a fever over him unless his temperature is up, too.”

After Bev went into the back rooms to browse, Ash sat for a few minutes, watching the storm build and listening to the occasional rumble of thunder. Afternoon thundershowers were an almost daily occurrence in spring and early summer, and she enjoyed the brief, violent flashes of nature. The strong, cooling winds seemed to blow away the heat and dust and leave an illusion of tranquility in their wake.

She couldn’t see the Gulf from here, but she knew that the water would be gray and rough, the sand patterned with miniature volcanic craters from the force of the raindrops. Her office window faced north, and she noticed that instead of coming out of the south or west, as such storms usually did, these dark clouds were rushing straight for her, driving the wind and rain before them.

Fire and ice. That was her first impression.

She hadn’t heard the bell on the doorjamb ring, much less the outer door open, but she looked away from the window and he was there, standing in the doorway. He was kinda tall with full, thick wavy brown hair that was set above icy blue eyes. His slim, yet powerful build was outlined in a silvery gray rains-cape against the dark storm clouds, and his flared red collar was pulled up now to shield his neck against the storm.

“May I come in?” His voice was deep and melodic. It vibrated softly inside her head, or maybe it was just an echo of thunder. His foot hesitated on the sill.

“Please do,” she replied. Still under the calm spell of the storm, his presence did not intrude on her peace of mind. She smiled up at him and watched him smile in return. She watched in fascination as he shook the rain from the gray cape, revealing a dark lining, and hung it on one of the hooks near the door. His long sleeved black shirt and black jeans must have been uncomfortably warm on such a hot summer evening. He was certainly one of the most handsome men to come into the shop in a long time. Perhaps a trifle over six feet tall, slim and elegant even in jeans, he had a deep chest and strong shoulders. He moved with the unconscious grace of a natural athlete.

As he turned to face her, she noticed long strong hands, held as if poised to caress some valuable, delicate piece of crystal. On the index finger of his right hand was a carved ruby ring. Her eyes didn’t follow the detail, but moved to his face.

His face was carved rather than chiseled. A high, broad forehead with eyebrows that were two shades darker than his hair emphasized deep-set blue eyes and a fair complexion. His nose was like a small ridge, strong and proud, set off by high flat cheekbones. It was a face that could have been cruel, but was softened by an expressive mouth and sensitive, finely molded lips.

Her cursory inspection had turned into such a detailed examination that it would have embarrassed her if she hadn’t moved her eyes up to meet his level gaze. That act took her mind off of small matters of embarrassment and focused it on light blue eyes with just a hint of sea-gray, like the waters of the Gulf after a storm. They held a mocking glint that said he was perfectly aware of the impression he created. And he enjoyed it.

That telltale glint brought her back to earth with a resounding thud. She knew from hard experience that such good-looking men with thick brown hair and intelligent bright eyes rarely had time or inclination for a second look at overweight, behind-the-counter bookstore girls, even if they did own the shop. She took a deep breath and tried to retain her hold on reality.

“Is there something special I can help you find, sir?” she asked politely. Meanwhile a traitorous voice inside her head cried, “Me! Me!”

“Do you have any books on psychic phenomena? I’m especially interested in anything concerning reincarnation or past lives.”

“Of course. Check the occult, horror and mystery room down the hall and to your left. It seems to me I bought something like that a few weeks ago, though I can’t remember why. Try the second shelf.” She had noticed a trace of an accent. British? Perhaps. It was too faint to identify. She led the way down the hall.

He had returned her gaze curiously. Her hair was light brown and so glossy that it caught the light and held it. Long and straight, it hung past her shoulders and ended just above her full breasts. He felt the first, faint stirrings of hunger and wondered if she were busy tonight.

Her clear green eyes were startling under finely shaped eyebrows and long lashes. He noticed that her eyebrow arched naturally into a peak that gave her expression and inquisitive look. Her eyes were wide-spaced, and a demanding intelligence looked boldly out at the world. Her skin glowed with a healthy rosiness under her tan, and she wore just enough makeup to bring out the loveliness of her face. She carried some excess weight, but she carried it like a queen. She would make a good companion for dinner, or even a night or two. He watched her walk down the hall ahead of him, and her movements were graceful and sure. He had felt her withdrawal, but he ignored it. It was not her choice to make.

“Are you the owner?” he asked.

“Owner, manager, clerk, and janitor. I’m Ashlee Dianne Truman. Ash.”

“I have passed this way many times, but usually at night, when the store is closed. I am Justin Tepes Drake.” The name was said with a certain unconscious arrogance, and Ash suffered an immediate urge to burst his bubble.

“Tepes? That’s an odd name. Any relation to Vlad?” The words just seemed to pop out and she could have bitten her tongue. When you met a man whose middle name was Arnold, did you ask if he was related to Benedict? She silently chastised herself.

“I beg your pardon?” His gaze sharpened on her until she was sure that he had understood exactly what she had said. The force of his eyes was a shock to her system, stimulating and smothering her at the same time, making it difficult to breathe. She forced out the words, “Never mind.” She stumbled as she turned to go; suddenly needing more air than was available in this formerly bright, spacious room.

He turned to watch her leave. Where had that question come from? Out of the thousands of people in this area, out of the very few select to whom he would have offered his full name, what incredible mischance would cause her mental leap to connect Tepes to Vlad Tepes the Impaler, Vladimir Dracul of the Castle Dracula? If she knew that, what else did she know? His ears followed her light steps back to the office.

She was certainly full of surprises, he mused to himself. First dear old Uncle Vlad: then leaving of her own free will. Of course, he had not tried to hold her, but very few women voluntarily left while he was looking at them. He made his decision. She would be his for the evening, and for as long as he chose. It should be interesting.

As he turned back to browse, he heard the tinkle of the bell above the entrance door. Another customer, but that was no problem. He was in no hurry. It was dusk, and the sky had not cleared. She would be closing the shop soon. He could wait.




Fifty-five miles south, in the Gulf of Mexico, the crate tossed and whirled with the action of the water. Inside, the woman was realizing the enormity of her mistake. She screamed her brother’s name, over and over, as if sheer volume and intensity could carry over the distance between them. A particularly rough wave tumbled the box and she clawed at the sides, suddenly unsure of even her most basic refuge. The box steadied as she controlled herself and her emotions. The unnatural calm spot reappeared in the storm.

She sought her brother’s mind again, projecting over the water, calling for help. She found him readily, but again, there was no answer. She tried harder, willing him to respond, trying to control her desperation. She called with his childhood name, then the family name, then with the power of their shared blood, but there was nothing.
“You can hear me. I know you can hear me. I need help. Come to me.” Her desperation grew with the force of the waves. For the first time in centuries, fear crept into her heart.

“Please.” She begged out loud, setting aside her pride. “Please, Brother, help me. I will never ask another thing of you. I will free you of your bondage to me. I will grant you any favor, just don’t ignore me. Come and get me.”

Convinced at last that there would be no response, anger grew in her. “You’ll pay, Little Brother. Little Bastard! Don’t pretend you don’t hear me!” She yelled until the wind screamed with her fury and she feared that the towering waves would crush her ancient coffin like a rotten shell. When she gave up, her brow was beaded with bloody sweat.

She stared dully at the ebony wood, so close above her. Even in this absolutely lightless space, her eyes could make out the fine grain of each individual fiber.

“You’ll pay for this,” she muttered. “I’ll make you pay.” Her bed gave a sudden lurch, and she swallowed dryly. Her hatred for her brother focused her thoughts. Her mind was close to her brother’s now that she could sense what was happening around him. She focused on the environment, trying to see with other eyes. It worked. She could read the interest surrounding a female. The female’s mind glistened and shimmered, like oil over deep water, and she tried to break into it, to pick up some hint of weakness or vulnerability. She could find none. At this distance, the other woman’s thoughts were closed to her, even when she tried to force her. Was this why his brother was interested? Or was it just hunger for a night’s pleasure? She couldn’t tell, but either way, the bastard would be disappointed.

She had no choice. She would have to wait for a suitable time and suitable mind. She needed one that was warped or crippled, handicapped in some basic way; one that she could take over, even if only for a short while. It didn’t matter that her victim would never recover from the effects of having their mind taken over and used, forced into some action over which they had no control.

She would wait. And watch. And plan.




Ash walked slowly back to her office, thinking of the man she had just met. He was an odd one. Striking as well as handsome, and there was definitely something compelling about those blue eyes.

She sat at her desk and shuffled through a stack of papers. Bills, advertisements, letters, and more bills. She wrote one check, then stared out the window into the dusk. The rain was moving on now, and there was a streak of blue sky in the north, but the air still had the charged, expectant feeling of the storm.

She shrugged off a feeling of unease and opened a letter. The headache hit without warning. The center of her forehead felt as if a hot needle had been plunged into it. She scrubbed her brow with her fingers and they came away damp. Then it was gone. As suddenly as it had come, the needle disappeared, leaving only a slight ringing in her ears and a churning in her stomach. She put down the paper without reading it and walked to the window, staring out blindly. What was happening? Was she coming down with something? She had that uneasy, slightly out-of-focus feeling that sometimes presaged the flu.

She jumped as the doorbell jangles, then smiled as one of her favorite people made his way through the stacks into her office.

“Paul, it’s good to see you. How’s Miranda?”

“You mean you don’t know? I’d figured you’d have talked to her at least twice today.”

“She called once,” Ash admitted, grinning, “but I had three customers waiting. Anything special going on?”

“I’m meeting her for dinner in town tonight. I was a little early so I thought I’d pick up a book.”

“Knowing your wife and my cousin, I’d say you’ve got plenty of time. The last time I was supposed to meet her, she was an hour late.”

“She promised she’d be on time for once.”

“And you believed her? Dreamer!” She grinned as Lieutenant Paul Bellecourt moved a stack of books from a chair and sat down. He leaned back comfortably and his feet barely touched the floor. He was the shortest cop on the force, but she had never heard of him having a problem because of it. Compact, well-built, with small hands and feet that were always precisely where they should be, he gave an impression of purpose and self-confidence. She had never seen him stumble, or fidget, or make any move that was less than precise and graceful. His face was sharp and sensitive. The bones showed clearly under the skin, making a ridge of his brow line and small hills of his cheekbones. His mouth was wide and generous, but half hidden under a thick moustache. His Cajun ancestry showed in his dark hair and eyes, but only came through occasionally in his speech. When he was excited, he had a tendency to slip into a dialect that sounded as if he had just swum out of the swamp. He had married Ash’s cousin Miranda five years before.

“How’s business?” he asked.

“Doing good. Of course it usually picks up this time of year. The tourists who tried to get all their summer tan in one day are burnt to a crisp and they usually pick up a book to read while they stay in their rooms and suffer.”

Paul grinned knowingly. Tourists who got sunburned were fair game for jokes. You could always tell a tourist by the color: fish-belly white on the first day and lobster red for a week. The second week they were both, depending on which areas peeled first. Local ranged from light to dark tan, depending on whether they stayed out of the sun completely, in which case reflected glare was enough to give the most careful ones a healthy color, or whether they courted the sun and turned a deep, nut brown. Paul’s face was the color of an old pecan shell.

“Many locals stop by?”

“A few. Elaine Watson came by today. You know her, don’t you?”

“Know her brother in-law better. Bad one there. We’ve never been able to prove anything, but I’d say he’s pretty rough on her and the kids.”

“Shame,” Ash commented. “I’ve never met him, but she walks around like she was scared of her own shadow.”

“My Daddy used to have a saying about people like him: he’s breathin’ air that could be put to better use.”

“Speaking of such,” she glanced through the glass doors and watched a man park a huge old Chevrolet next to Justin’s Jaguar. “Look what crawled out from under a rock.”

Paul looked up in time to see the door open carelessly into the side of the Jaguar and he winced. “I didn’t know he could read.”

“I’m not sure he can. He drags his wife in here about once a month, like he was trying to show her just how low she’s sunk. They pick a fight and usually leave screaming at each other.” She watched them walk up the steps. “But it’s worse when he comes in alone.”

Paul glanced at her sharply. “It’s almost closing time,” he suggested mildly.

She shook her head. “If I don’t let them in this time, it’ll be worse the nest. He’s harmless. Just kind of slimy.” She broke off abruptly and forced a smile as they came through the door.

“‘Lo, Ash. Got anything good for me?”

“The comic book section is behind you.”

Even his smile is disgusting, Ash thought as she looked at Billy Bazzel. He stood about six foot two, but his slump took off three inches. His beer belly looked out of place on his slat thin frame, like a small pouch hanging over a scarecrow’s belt. His green shirt had dime-sized yellow patches of egg yolk dribbled down the front and his jeans were so stiff with filth that it made her skin crawl. As he leaned forward, Ash moved unobtrusively back. Did the man really think that deodorant and cologne were a substitute for bathing?

“Hello, Laura, how are you?” She looked with compassion on what had once been a beautiful woman, but was now a female counterpoint to her common-law husband. Her hair was long and stringy, and her bright red lipstick had smeared onto one front tooth. As for the yellow dress she wore, Ash wouldn’t have used it as a cleaning rag. There was little to show that Laura was from a once proud family.

“I’m fine,” she said huskily, sliding one hand down to pat her hip. “Have you been gaining weight, Ashlee? I swear, I think your face gets rounder every time I see you.” She smiled maliciously and moved toward the front room, ignoring Paul pointedly as he stepped out of her path. “Ah just came in for one of those trashy little romance novels. You must have hundreds of them and sweet ole Billy-boy won’t have them in the shop.”

“That’s because they don’t have pictures,” Paul drawled as Laura sidled past him. Then she backed up unexpectedly as Beverly came through the other way.

“Hello, Laura.” Bev’s crisp voice held none of the casual drawl it did when she was talking to friends. She turned to the storeowner. “Ash, you going to the Boardwalk tomorrow night? What about a swim? And a pizza later?”

“Oh, hello.” Laura stepped further back into the room to avoid contact. “Ah didn’t know y’all could read.”

Ash began to burn. The use of the word “y’all” was a deliberate racial slur. A Yankee might not know the difference, but when a Southerner used the plural form to an individual, he meant more than just the person he was talking to.

But Bev could take care of herself. “Of course you wouldn’t know, Laura-Sue,” she said, almost kindly. “You dropped out of school before I graduated.”

“Valedictorian,” Ash added. “Of course, you probably don’t know that word either. It has more than two syllables. I’d love a swim, Bev. Meet you at eight?”

“Fine.”

“A nigger on the beach,” Billy laughed. “You tryin’ to improve your tan?” He turned to Ash and smirked. “Y’all be careful now. Sharks like dark meat.”

Bev turned away disgustedly and set her books on the counter. Ash gritted her teeth and totaled up the prices.

“Wha’ d’you keep in here that brangs ‘em in?” Billy snickered, glancing sideways at his wife to see her grin.

“Intelligent conversation,” Ash snapped, and turned to Bev. “I’ll put it on your account. You sure you’ll be free tomorrow night?”

“Free? She may be cheap, but I nevah heard of none of ‘em givin’ it away.” Billy’s snicker turned into a guffaw of laughter as Ash whirled on him.

“Shut up, Billy-boy!” Paul snapped. “Just because you pimp your wife and sister doesn’t mean you can come in and insult a lady.”

“A lady?” he said incredulously. “I ain’t nevah met no nigger lady before.”

“I don’t like that word, Bazzel.” Paul straightened up to his full height of five feet five inches. His brown eyes narrowed and turned dark. “And that’s twice you’ve used it.”

“Well, I’m right sorry ‘bout that, Bellecourt,” he drawled sarcastically.

“What did you come in here for, Billy?” Ash interrupted quickly.

“I told you. I want some of those trashy li’l romances and Billy won’t keep them in the shop.” Laura moved languidly to the door, still enjoying the disturbance.

“Why don’t you wait in the car, Billy?” Paul suggested quietly.

“I got as much right here as any ni…as she does.” Bazzel moved to the vacant chair and sat down firmly. There’re a lotta people who’d be int’rested to know you favor them over your own race, Ashlee.”

“You aren’t my race, Bazzel. You’re not even the same species,” Ash shot back.

Bev grinned at her friend, and left with a thumbs up gesture. “I’ll call you,” she said as she went out the door.

Paul hesitated, looking at Billy, then at Ash, who shook her head. “I close in ten minutes anyway. Let him stay. I’ll have the chair disinfected tomorrow.”

“I don’t think the stink will clean out. Better burn it,” Paul added as he left. “I’ll check the windows to make sure they’re locked.”

“You mean the nigger set here? I thought I smelt somethin’,” Billy propped his feet casually on the counter, blocking her in. Ash ignored him and started totaling up her receipts, wondering if they would cover this month’s bills. Some people just never knew the joys of owning their own business.

In a moment, she was trying to keep from fidgeting. She could feel his eyes on her, and when she finally glanced at him, he licked his lips suggestively. His eyes glittered and he stared at her until she couldn’t miss his meaning. “What about you, Ashlee? You take off a few pounds here an’ there an’ I reckon a man could fin’ somethin’ to int’rest him. “Course he’d still have to look mighty hard.”

It was particularly humiliating to be told to lose weight by such a slug. “Why do you come in here, Billy? Just to nauseate me and my friends?”

“I like it here. You got class, baby. It’s all a mattah of class. Laura-Sue used to have it, but all she does now is sit aroun’ reading tha’ trash she buys here, an’ drinkin’ my whiskey. Fat an’ all, you got real class. All you need is a real man to show you what to do with it.”

She struck at his ankles and he let his feet slide to the floor. “If you don’t want any books, wait in the car, Billy. I don’t want you in my store.” She was working to control her voice, but her anger had evaporated with the blow. If she weren’t careful, she would laugh in his face.

“I’ll jest wait right here an’ talk to you.” He stood up and walked toward her. She had never realized how tall he was. He seemed to tower over her and suddenly it wasn’t at all funny. There was something scary about him. It had hit her when she struck him, and clung to her like an odor. She told herself she was being absurd. She turned her head to avoid the rancid smell of his breath and he misunderstood the motion. “Now I jest cain’t unnerstan’ why a pretty girl like you ain’t nevah been married. Why d’you s’pose that is, Ashlee? His hand reached toward her.

She moved suddenly, startling him by whipping the side of her hand up to knock his arm away. She moved toward him and faced him squarely, trying not to breathe in. Her anger was back.

“I reckon it’s cause I’m so mean, Billy-boy,” she drawled, and the venom dripped from her words. “So you better get your dirty ass out of my store, an’ don’t you ever come back!” She saw the hesitation in his eyes.

“Ain’t polite to crowd a lady.” Paul strode casually back into the office and surveyed the scene. “That store of yours clean, Billy? Or are you still selling whips and chains?”

“Sex aids ain’t against th’ law, Bellecourt.” He moved back slightly and Ash realized she had been holding her breath.

“You oughta be ‘gainst de law. “Sides, what d’you bet dat I can’t find some violations if I just walk by dat shack o’ yours a couple times a night? I see you in here ever again, an’ I’ll pull your license…permanently.” Paul smiled again and Ash felt herself relax. Her legs were suddenly weak and she leaned back casually against the counter as Paul continued, “You go ahead on out, now, boy, ‘fore I done get mad.”

She had seen Paul like this once before, but it had been so long ago that she had forgotten how dangerous he could be. His trim body seemed to settle into itself, like a spring coiling. He gained solidity. His brown eyes narrowed and darkened to black. Even his moustache seemed to bristle. She could see the hard line of muscle in his jaw.

Laura Susan Harrington Bazzel, once of the proud Pensacola Harringtons, but disowned long ago: walked into office to see her common-law husband cowed and sweating. She giggled unexpectedly.

“Why, honey, what’s going on here? Is that itty-bitty poleece man too much for you?” Her glee at seeing her mate disconcerted was undisguised. He whirled on her bitterly.

“You stupid bitch! I tol’ you we oughtn’ta come in here. This high class, uppity—“

Paul’s hand moved slightly, warningly, and Billy’s words chopped off abruptly.

“You told me?” She screeched at him. “You spineless, no-good whore’s son. I warned you ‘bout coming here. I tol’ you to let her alone. Those goddamned Truman’s have always been too uppity for messin’ around with. That bitch’ll cut your balls off if you look at her wrong.” They all missed the astonishment on Ash’s face. Did they believe that? She felt obscurely pleased.

“I don’t know why you drag me down here. Won’t she let you in when I’m not along?” Laura’s tirade continued as they moved from the office to the main room. “You could get the same books for me if you tried and I’d never have to set foot in this dump.”

Furious, Billy whirled on her, then noticed the books she still clutched. He struck her hand viciously, sending them hurtling into a rack and starting a small avalanche. Paul and Ash moved uneasily to the inner doorway, watching them leave. Billy picked up a book from a rack and drew back his hand, ready to heave it through the glass door.

“Bazzel.” Paul took one step into the front room and Billy dropped the book as if stung. Ash touched Paul’s shoulder in restraint as Billy shoved Laura toward the door.

“Let them go, Paul,” she muttered quietly.

“Fuckin’ cop. I weren’t doin’ nothin’. Ash’s a friend of mine. She knew I was jest foolin’.” He said sullenly.

“Let them go,” Ash repeated as the door closed behind them. “I’d rather clean up the mess than jave them in the store any longer than necessary.” Paul glanced through the window just as he and Ash finished picking up the books. The argument was continuing in the car as the couple drove off.

“What got into him?” Paul sounded as bewildered as she felt.

“I don’t know. Thanks for the help.” As they walked back into the office, she clenched her hands into fists to keep him from seeing that they were trembling.

“Does he do this often?”

“Not like this. Never like this. He’s sleazy, sure, but this time he acted downright crazy. I’ve handled it a hundred times before, but this time was different, wasn’t it? I always thought he was harmless, you know?” She couldn’t get the look in his eyes out of her mind. He had wanted trouble.

“I can’t figure it, Ash. But I’ll be on watch for him from now on. And I’ll tell Bev to be careful, too. You keep a gun in the shop, don’t you?”

“Yeah, but,” she looked at him in disbelief. “You don’t think it would have gone that far, do you? The gun never even crossed my mind.”

“Well, just keep it where you won’t forget it next time. When was the last time you took it out for practice?”

“Weeks.” She replied, then thought again. “Months, probably.”

“I’m off Monday, and the shop is closed, right?” Paul was not one to put things off. She nodded resignedly, and he continued, “Okay, we’ll go over to the practice range.”

“As long as we’re doing that, why don’t you and Miranda come for barbecue Monday night?” she asked.

“Sounds good. We’ll bring the beer. You going to invite David?”

She shrugged nonchalantly. “If he doesn’t have a date. Maybe.”

Paul nodded, satisfied with the arrangements. “I didn’t finish checking the windows. Why don’t I do that now, and you get ready to lock up? I’ll follow you home.”

“Aw, come on, Paul, that’s a little extreme, isn’t it? I only live ten minutes from here, and David will be next door. In fact, if I know him, he’s already at the house waiting for me, thinking that he’s pulled a fast one. Besides, you’re late already. You get the windows checked and go meet Miranda. I’ll be okay. I have to wait for my last customer anyway. It wouldn’t look good if Miranda beat you to the restaurant. You wouldn’t have anything to tease her about.”

The storm had almost subsided and the coffin rocked gently in the waves. The woman inside was free to concentrate all her powers on the one she had chosen. She thought her wait was almost over.

It was only beginning.




Paul grinned as he left Ash’s office, but he had no intention of letting her drive home alone. He would follow her, and if David wasn’t there when they arrived, he would go next door and brief him on the situation. Miranda would understand if he was late, bless her. What she wouldn’t understand was if he let her cousin go off unprotected.

He heard the last customer moving around in the back room, and then the bell over the front door jangled. He stopped for a moment, wondering if it was a late customer.

Ash tidied up the office, thinking what a strange day it had been. In five minutes, at 7 p.m. sharp, she would turn off the lights to the sign, get her purse and be ready to go. If Justin Drake hadn’t reappeared by then, she would lock the door and unlock it for him when he left. Despite what she had told Paul, business wasn’t so good that she could afford to ask a customer to leave.

She picked up her keys absentmindedly and jangled them in her hand. The bell over the doorway answered the sound like an echo. She moved from the desk to behind the counter to see who had come in.

Justin Drake had glanced at the title of almost every book in the store while he waited for closing time. His acute hearing had caught the sounds of the altercation in the office, and he had been relieved when Paul had come to the rescue. He would not have let that fool interfere with is intended pleasure, and it would have been easy for Justin to send him away, but he felt curiously reluctant to use his power tonight. Maybe it was the presence of the policeman. He had no wish to come to attention of the authorities. Anonymity was his protection.

He had heard the front door open again and the light slap, slap of tennis shoes on tile. Something was wrong. He could feel it. He headed for the office with a mixed handful of books for Ash to check out. It was close enough to closing time to make conversation with her until they left together. He had no doubt that Ash’s date would be disappointed tonight.





The woman in the coffin didn’t have to look very far for a suitable mind. Anger, hate, bitterness and fear led like a thread to a mind that was just on the edge of madness. She struck at it viciously, crushing it with her power. She forced it to turn around and go back the way it had come, to the other female, closer to its own destruction. It made one feeble effort to stay free, but centuries of mastery made it easy to break the weak mind and impose her own will. She could see though its eyes now. It knew where to go, but there was someone else with it, a whining presence that irritated her. She caused an arm to strike out suddenly, felt it connect, and shared the fierce joy that her victim felt. This was something that the man had wanted to do for a long time, but never had the nerve. She struck out again, letting it feel her own pleasure. She promised it more fun soon, and pointed it like a poisoned arrow at her brother’s prey. Then she went along for the fun.

Her bastard brother might feed tonight, but not on the one he had chosen. The female would be dead, and after, she could direct the captive mind to borrow or steal a boat and pick her up. Otherwise, it might be a day, or even longer before the tides brought her back to shore. Then she would deal with er brother in person.

For now, she settled back to enjoy the look on her half brother’s face when he was robbed of his pleasure.





Laura Harrington needled Billy Bazzel, of “those po’ white trash Bazzels,” as he drove north out of the city. She didn’t look up when the dark scrub pines changed to towering oaks hung with Spanish moss like thick, torn spiderwebs, and the stubby Cyprus knees rose out of the still, black swamp water. She laughed as he raved about that “pint-sized, half-ass runt of a cop tryin’ to back me inta a corner. If he didn’t have a badge on I woulda stomped him good. You coulda scraped him up with a shovel. I will yet.”

Laura-Sue laughed derisively. “You ain’t gonna do nothin’ to him. You ain’tr got the balls to face him down, an’ if you tried, you’d be the one scraped up. Assholes don’t have no balls.” Her insulting laughter broke out again at her last words, and she whooped with glee as he turned the car in a skid.

“Wher you goin’ now, Billy-boy?” she managed to ask.

“Shut up bitch.” His voice sounded strange.

She tried to get a good look at him in the fading light. His eyes gleamed menacingly and she tried to still her laughter as the car turned back the way it had come.

“You don’t fool me none. You ain’t goin’ back there. He’ll nail your hide to the wall, if the bitch don’t get you first. Besides, they were locking up. They’ll be gone by now.”

“No!”

The word burst from him in a roar, and she was thrown back as he stepped hard on the accelerator. His right hand left the wheel as he reached across her to the glove compartment. It was if his fingertips had eyes. He opened the glove compartment and she watched, fascinated, as his hand ignored the tangle of trash, papers, candy wrappers, crumpled cigarette packs, old combs with broken teeth, a screwdriver and a wrench, and other assorted odds and ends. It went straight to the .22 caliber revolver that lay on the bottom of the heap.

“Are you crazy?” she screamed at him. “You cain’t use that. He’s a cop. He’ll kill you.” She was still yelling at him when he backhanded her casually across the face, the gun still in his hand. Her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened in shock. “Billy?” Her voice was almost a whisper. Her hand crept to her cheek and she winced at the stinging pain there.

“You bastard!” She sobbed the words as her breath caught in her throat. Shock gave way to fury as she realized that he was not reacting to her. She hit him lightly on the shoulder with her fist.

“You hit me,” she said incredulously, but there was still no reaction. Emboldened, she beat at his shoulder with her fists, working herself into a frenzy. Her fists pounded wildly as he swung the car into a familiar parking lot. The brightly lit sign read: Ash’s Book Shop. We buy and Sell Used Books.

Billy stopped the car and turned to her, smiling. Her fist, slowed, hesitated, then her fingers uncurled like the petals of a flower as she stared deeply into his eyes. A fierce flame danced there. She opened her mouth to scream, but his hand lashed out first. This time he hit her with the gun barrel, opening a bloddy gash on her forehead. She cowered back against the far door, scrabbling to get out of his way. She stared down the dark barrel of the gun, waiting for the shot, but he just grinned at her and said, “Wait for me here. I’ll be back.” Her heart fluttered as hope shot through her. Did he mean that the Billy she had known so long would be right back? Then she realized that whatever came back, it wouldn’t be her Billy.

She watched just long enough to see him pull the glass door open, the she bolted for the road.




Paul Bellecourt was checking the windows in the Romance Room, taking his time, waiting for the last customer to leave, when he heard the jangle of the doorbell and moved quietly down the hall to the front room. He paused at the doorway, looking right to the outside door, but he was too late to see the person who had just entered. Over the top of the racks that filled the room, he could just see the top of someone’s head as the person moved toward Ash’s office. Paul took one step into the room and stopped abruptly, his attention caught by a sudden movement to his left. A man came into view and stopped.

The tall light brown haired man stepped into the room and stood, immobile, as if flowing water had been suddenly frozen. Paul felt his body draw into itself, ready for battle, but only the tall man’s eyes moved, tracking from the one who had just entered to Paul. Even at this distance, Paul could see the brilliance of those blue eyes. He felt drawn into them. Slowly, the tall man’s head turned toward him, drawing attention to his high forehead and slightly darker eyebrows. The light glinted off his light brown hair, then all Paul could see were those incredible blue eyes, bottomless pits with just a hint of angry red in their depths. He felt himself weighed and measured, then dismissed so completely that his body swayed back in release. He stood staring dumbly as Justin turned away from him and stepped further into the room, moving left toward the office. Paul came back to his senses, and moved between the rows. He recognized the back of Billy’s head and hurried to intercept him. Justin had already reached the corner and was turning toward Billy. Paul caught a glimpse of Billy’s gun, but he was too far away. He shouted, knowing with a cop’s instinct that it was already too late. There was a blur to his right as he sprinted toward them.

He was too late.
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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Sun 25 Oct 2009, 4:59 pm

Chapter 1 Part 2


Justin had heard the bell and moved lightly out of the back room, down the hall, and paused in the doorway of the main room. The light pad of footsteps on the carper drew his attention to the front. All he could see over the racks was a shock of greasy black hair proceeding slowly to his left. He glanced to the right at Paul, then turned to face him. That was not where this feeling of danger was coming from. He dismissed Paul as, if not an ally, at least not an antagonist. He moved left along the wall, slipping quietly around the corner until he could see the entrance to the office.

Billy Bazzel stood in the doorway, pointing a gun at the counter area. Justin couldn’t see Ash from this angle, but he could hear her. There was a quick indrawn breath, a small sound of protest, and a single footfall as she turned away.

“No.” Justin barely whispered the word, focusing all his power of command at Billy. It was like hitting a shield, but Billy’s eyes slid sideways to glance at him. Fear and confusion warred with the thrill of forbidden pleasure.

“Mine!” Justin growled softly.

Bazzel’s lips drew back to show long tarnished teeth as he giggled at Justin’s helplessness. His eyes flicked back to Ashlee and he fired the gun.

The sharp crack thundered through the shop. There was a dull thud as something soft hit the office wall, and Justin launched himself into the air, roaring, “Stop!”

He covered the ten foot distance too fast for the eye to follow. The second shot exploded as his left hand knocked the gunhand down. His right grabbed the nape of Billy’s neck and squeezed once, briefly. He heard the crunch of small bones and a corpse dangled from his fist. He shook it once, just to make sure, then tossed the carcass disgustedly into a corner.

He took one long stride into the office and vaulted over the counter, landing with his legs straddling Ash’s inert body. His hand touched slick warm wetness on the wall, and he looked up to see a splatter of blood at head height. It smeared down to where Ash slumped with her back against the wall. The coppery odor was intoxicating. It filled his senses and his anger grew the waste. Kneeling, he felt the life spilling out of her. He stretched out his hand to touch her face, then shifted her head and shoulders gently until she lay flat.

“Is she alive?” Paul yelled from the other room.

Justin heard a thud, then a skittering noise and he realized that the cop had stopped to kick the gun out of Billy’s hand. The action was according to the best police procedure, he was sure, but in this case it was totally unnecessary. He grinned savagely, showing his fangs as he answered, “Barely.”

“I’ll call the paramedics. Don’t move her.” Paul came around the counter to stare at the wreck that had been his friend.

“Call them then!” Justin snapped the words out, already knowing the worst. His sensitive fingers had found the soft, bloody groove in the back of her head. From the angle, she must have been turning away when the bastard shot her. He could feel the gritty movement of bone fragments through his fingertips. Even in his overwhelming rage, he knew that it was no coincidence that the bullet had found his chosen prey. A part of his mind wondered who was responsible and why.

As Paul turned to use the desk phone, Justin bent further over Ash, hiding her from a possible backward glance. There was still one way to save her, though he didn’t know if it was wise. He didn’t stop to think about it.

He released her for a moment, moving to balance on the balls of his feet. Drawing the sharp thumbnail of his right hand across his left wrist, he watched the blood bubble from the deep slit. He pressed it to her cold slack lips, feeling her heartbeat through his wrist. It was a weak, thready beat that said that life was almost over. He stroked her throat as one would a sick kitten, to make her swallow. Her eyes flickered open briefly as she tasted his offering, and the pulse gradually grew stronger and more regular. He willed his lifeblood into her, feeling the beat pick up until it matched his own. It thundered through him, a primitive, compelling drumbeat. The familiar, hungry ache in his cheekbones was a warning, and he reluctantly pulled his wrist from her warm, sucking lips.

The irony of it didn’t escape him; he was giving to her what he had planned to take. The red depths of his eyes subsided to a distant glimmer and his teeth stopped hurting. He smiled with satisfaction as he closed the cut with pressure from his fingers and wiped a smear of blood from her lips. Staring at their mingled blood on his hands, he slowly raised his bloody fingers to his mouth. He tasted it thoughtfully, feeling the heat course through his veins, and closing his eyes against the hunger it raised.

“Some other time,” he promised her quietly.

Paul had finished his phone call and checked on Billy. He hadn’t expected to find him dead, the counterattack had been too sudden, too brief, but he was relieved that he didn’t have to deal with him. He hurried back to Ash and found her stretched out in the space in between the counter and the wall. He put his hand on Justin’s shoulder, then snatched it back as if bitten.

Justin stood up slowly, wearily. He towered over Paul, who stepped back a pace and spoke. “I called the ambulance for her. Billy won’t need one. How is she?”

Justin moved back without answering, and Paul slipped in to take his place. He checked her pulse and breathing, then looked up to see Justin heading toward the door.

“Where you going?”

“You have no further need of me, and I have done what I could for her.”

“I think you better stick ‘round. You leave now, it jus’ muddy de water. There ain’t no question dat you acted rightly in defense of her, and there ain’t gonna be no problem ‘bout it since you got a cop for an eyeball witness, but dere be a hell of a lot of forms to fill out.” Paul’s Cajun accent sounded thick after the other man’s elegant dismissal.

“I dislike publicity. Perhaps…” Justin’s voice trailed off suggestively as he turned his hypnotic eyes on Paul. The gesture was lost since the cop had already turned back to Ash.

“I’ll do what I can do t’keep your name out of it, but don’t you count on much. De newshounds, they’ll be all over you soon’s they figger out what de hell happened. You could be a hero in dis town.” Paul looked up to see Justin shake his decisively. “Yeah, can’t say’s I blame you. But you’ll still have to stick around.”

Justin spread his hands in acquiescence, then leaned gracefully against a wall. There was no hurry. He had fed well last night. The hunger he had felt was a reaction to the blood, an inconvenience, not a demand. He wondered idly whether his kind could starve to death, and how long it would take. There was no danger of that here. They would not be able to keep him if he chose to leave.

The ambulance arrived quickly, but then the paramedics encountered and unexpected problem. They worked in the confined space to brace her head and neck, but the space between the wall and counter was too narrow to put the stretcher down beside Ash and put her on it. And she was a little too heavy for one of them to lift and walk out with her. Justin watched them in detached amusement until one of them tried to lift her shoulders and duck walk her out of the confined space. He slipped as he stepped in a pool of her own blood and his foot slid out from under him. He sat down with an audible thump. Ash’s head bounced stiffly in his lap.

As Paul cursed the clumsy fool, Justin growled softly. “Move, fool.” He reached over the counter, grabbed the man by the front of his uniform, jerked him over the top and tossed him to the floor. He then carelessly brushed aside the other attendant as he slid across the top of the counter and stooped to her side. Putting one arm under her neck and shoulders and the other under her knees, he straightened up carefully, cradling her head. He walked easily around the barrier and placed her gently on the stretcher. Then he took her hands and placed them precisely alongside her body. He tenderly stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, then leaned down and touched his lips to hers.

“Do you know her?” Paul asked, puzzled.

“No.” Justin straightened up and watched them carry her away. “But I will.”
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PostSubject: Re: A Matter of Choice   Tue 10 Nov 2009, 8:12 pm

Written with such directness that the characters seem real and plausible after only a few chapters. This chapter was sad and wonderful at the same time. Wonderful because of the well written introduction of characters, sad because of the obvious. I like Justin's dark mysterious demeanor. His character displays a lot of passion, warmth and tenderness, with an interest in Ashlee. I look forward to reading more, great job. I love you cheers study
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