He called to her. Sara didn’t doubt she was dreaming because never in all her waking hours had she ever felt this way. It was not real. No matter how desperately she wanted it to be.
The hard angles of his outline were visible even though he stood back in the concealing shadows of her night-filled bedroom. Slowly he lifted his hand, beckoning her.
“Come closer.” His quiet tone was darkly sensual, hinting at a promise that sent shivers through her entire body.
“Who are you?” Sara cringed at the sound of her breathless voice. He was the one causing her to feel that way—breathless, shivery—and she hadn’t even seen his face.
“Maybe I’m the one you’re searching for.” His hypnotic voice beckoned her closer and she didn’t resist. She moved toward him before she even realized it, forcing herself to stop a foot away from his shadowy form.
Too close, yet not close enough. Her mind warred with her body, leaving her confused at the sensual power he so easily wielded, and fighting a desire threatening to envelop her completely.
After forcing air into her lungs, she breathed out. “Why are you the one I’m searching for?”
Only a few words, but they had the compelling power to send her senses into overdrive.
“Because you need me.”
* * * *
Phoenix, Arizona, Present day.
Mentally cursing, Sara Winters stood by the headstone of her father’s grave. Her self-condemning words didn’t help ease the misgivings, or the nagging doubts, or even the guilt that plagued her conscience. I should have known. Or at the very least felt that something was wrong. What good was the gift of having visions if she was left in the dark when it mattered most?
Granted, she’d mentally experienced the nightmare vision of her father’s death, the details vivid and horrifying. But the warning had come too late. Too late for her to rush to his aide from halfway across the world.
Not for the first time, she wondered if her father had deliberately sent her to France on a wild goose chase. He’d known the temptation to find out if the fabled book was real and had been found was too hard for her to resist. As an antique dealer handling and collecting rare and ancient books, Sara had searched for the elusive Knights of the Night for most of her adult life. Purportedly translated into ancient Greek sometime in the 1200 A.D. era, the book in question was rumored to contain the safeguarded secrets of the special group of warrior knights who chose the night as their exclusive battleground.
Not much was known about their origins, or to whom their allegiance belonged, but they were present in many battles and became terrifying, mythical legends across Europe. Some thought they were with the Knights Templar but that theory was changed when it became known that the Knights of the Night most definitely had nothing to do with that particular army. The fabled Templar shunned them, proclaiming them “of evil conceived.”
Their cloaked forms were only seen during the night and their battle skills were rumored to be phenomenal. They left countless deaths in the paths of their retreat back into obscurity and mystery, but none of their own fell in any battle. The rumors of their origin and their deadly skills were much speculated but never solved. The book contained rare, incredibly potent spells the Night Knights were said to use, and also contained revealing diaries written by the thirteen exclusive members. But The Book wasn’t supposed to be exposed to the outside world. When the last of the thirteen had disappeared The Book had disappeared too. The fact that it was rumored to exist had many collectors seeking it over the years, over the centuries, and all over the world. Finding it became Sara’s main obsession. It held the secrets, the solution to the strange visions of The Book she’d had for most of her adult life. Finding it might finally explain why a mere book was so important to her life –and possibly her future. She was sure of that…or had been.
Sara knelt and ran her hand lightly over the fresh dirt of her father’s grave. Finding the book had to wait. Finding her father’s murderer was her first priority.
“What were you trying to hide from me?” She shook her head. At first, being lost in the nightmare of violence from the vision of her father’s death had left her too stunned to try and make sense of it all. Now that she was thinking more clearly, she knew something waited at the edges of her consciousness for her to discover. A nagging feeling that time was running out kept her anxious and jumpy. She and her father were not on the best of terms, and hardly spoke, but Sara had the feeling he would have told her something important—something he wanted to let her know before it was too late if he’d had that chance. The nagging thought persisted. It plagued her waking hours. Now more than ever she felt a vast emptiness between herself and her father, and death had made it permanent.
Standing up, she glanced over her shoulder at the black limousine parked near the cemetery’s gate. The agency had offered the use of the car as a courtesy, and though she’d have rather driven her own little Corvette, she had agreed to their offer. She had an earnest desire to avoid causing any bad feelings between her and the agency—especially when she didn’t know whether or not someone within their ranks knew more than they were saying about her father’s death.
Private Funding Investigations, PFI, was a secret agency financially funded by a group of scientists, her father included, and sanctioned by a covert company within the government’s Diplomatic Security Service. Sara had never been inside the secret facility, didn’t even know the exact location of it, but knew her father and the other scientists worked around the clock on special projects the government had assigned.
In her horrifying vision her father had been somewhere inside a building. The sterile white walls, the long lab tables, opened cabinets containing various chemicals, and the computer desks all pointed to the fact that he was likely in a lab at PFI.
Sara closed her eyes and concentrated on the odd images that kept flitting elusively through her mind. She re-focused on the image of her father as he had suddenly jumped up from his desk and spun around to confront someone behind him. As hard as she tried, she still wasn’t able to make out the shadowy figure in the background. Her father angrily waved a sheet of paper at the shadow man, shouting something.
Then, a look of complete horror came over her father’s face. The remaining scenes of her vision came flooding back into her mind—the rush of the too vivid images, the splattering of blood onto the white walls and spotless floors, the shrieks of terror, the encompassing black void sweeping into the room to swallow all sights and sounds.
Sara swallowed the bile rising in her throat. Her father had been murdered, but PFI had claimed he had been killed in an auto accident. Their cover story efficiently explained her father’s injuries, but she knew better.
No matter what I have to do, I’m going to find the truth.
Starting with the list of names on the paper she’d found hidden in her father’s safe at home.
* * * *
He waited in complete stillness, centuries of learning the art of patience coming into play now. His sharp senses assured him that he was close. Close enough to hear the death cry silenced before it had a chance to spread to human ears. Close enough to smell the sharp tang of spilled blood. Close enough to hear the heart struggle with one last pitiful beat.
Bloodlust rose within him, strong and fierce in its intensity. He clenched his fists and fought the urge to kill with superhuman strength of mind and will. There were times when he welcomed the change that came on the heels of the bloodlust. It gave him power and strength beyond human comprehension. It reminded him of what he’d once been, when time was completely irrelevant, and humans were but mere thoughts in the Creator’s plan. Although now was not one of those times to indulge in the change. He needed to stay in human form. To expose himself was not beneficial to his plans. Yet, it bothered him, letting the killer flee to safety as he stood and waited. The fiend would strike again, of that there was no doubt.
But Drake Domitaine waited for someone else. He knew she’d come because she followed the same path he did, searching out the ones listed on that small piece of paper she carried with her day and night. He’d seen the names briefly, but long enough to memorize them when she’d let her guard down and had left the paper on her bedside table one night while showering.
He grinned at the memory. Despite the fact she was staying in a mansion that boasted top of the line security for a specific reason, it had been too easy to influence her thoughts into momentarily forgetting to set the alarms. He’d slipped in undetected, shielding his form in misty shadow, and roamed the mansion at will while she remained unaware. When he finally followed her alluring scent into her bedroom suite, he’d noted the paper lying on the bedside table. Memorizing the names had taken only seconds. He hated having to be limited to human frailties, and having to memorize that list was one of those human traits he despised, but as long as he had to be on this mission, then he would have to tolerate the weaknesses that came with being almost human at times like this.
Forcing himself to leave, then, had taken longer. The sound of the running water from the shower filled his head with starkly erotic images he had no right thinking about. Knowing she was in there—naked and wet—was an enticingly vivid picture that nearly brought him to his knees with the potent shock of desire following in its path.
His grin faded instantly. Reacting that way to a human was beyond crazy. It was dangerous.
His race was a rare one, with only five of them left scattered over the world today. Despite the near extinction, they refused to mix with the human race. In order to be able to leave this Earth one day in the future the same way they had come into it, their bloodline had to stay strong, pure, untouched. Temporary liaisons with humans were not forbidden, it was almost a necessity in the length of their immortal lives, but the chance of being discovered was always too much of a risk for any of them to want to take the chance. Instead, they chose short, non-committal liaisons with other supernatural beings.
Yet, for some unknown reason, the too-tempting thought of her naked was a painful and immensely irritating reminder that he’d been celibate for too long. Damn. I shouldn’t have gotten this close to her. Her alluring scent of jasmine and woman had a permanent place in his memory that he’d have a hard time forgetting.
As soon as this was over, he planned to find a human to sate his relentless desire for sex…and blood—someone whose loss of life made it a blessing in disguise instead of a sacrifice. He’d always found them, human women and other female beings, that were more than willing to give him what he needed despite knowing the cost was their death. There were times when the bloodlust allowed him to spare his victim’s life. More often than not, that wasn’t the case. Even after centuries of strong-willed determination, he’d never completely conquered the bloodlust that demanded he take life into him to preserve his own. It was the one condition of his existence he hated. He was a protector of life, yet in order to live on this plane of existence he had to take life to survive.
That was why Sara Winters was completely off-limits. He would do everything in his power to keep her alive. No matter the cost to his own life. He needed her. They all did.
He grimaced as the thought of her brought back a physical ache that demanded attention. The sooner this situation was taken care of, the better. For everyone involved.
* * * *
Sara knocked softly on the door to room twenty-eight of the Amenity Suite Hotel. As she waited, she glanced down the hallway in both directions. At a little past midnight, the emptiness of the halls wasn't unusual but she still felt a twinge of unease. Something was out of place. Wrong. But, what? What is making me this scared?
Knocking again, she grimaced at the loud echo. No answer. Chewing on her bottom lip for a moment, she reached out and slowly turned the door knob. To her surprise, the door was unlocked. The dire, mental warning that something was definitely wrong started screaming louder in her head, but she resolutely ignored it. That fear had passed after the last two events involving the list of names. Still, she was more than a little cautious as she stepped into the dark room. Stretching her hand out, she located the light switch on the wall and flipped it. The room flooded with light.
“Mr. Franklin?” She noted the unmade bed in the center of the room, and the opened suitcase on the table next to the bed. Nothing seemed out of place, or disturbed. Something isn’t right. I can feel it. Hesitant, but determined, she advanced into the room. “Hello? Mr. Franklin? It’s Sara Winters.”
Her gaze went to the bathroom. The door was ajar and the light off so she was almost sure he wasn’t in there. Where is he? I told him I’d meet him after midnight and he promised he’d be waiting. Advancing into the middle of the room, she abruptly stopped. Suddenly, she became acutely aware of the obvious sense of utter stillness, an eerie feeling of frozen time. It felt as though the entire room was enclosed in a blanket of cold nothingness. Goosebumps rose across her bare arms, and she half-expected to see her breath come out in cold puffs of air.
Her mind shouted one stark word: Death.
Death was here, just like the other two times. It had been too late to talk to either of those men. She’d found both dead of what had been deemed natural deaths, one with a heart attack, the other with a stroke.
David Franklin was third on the list of six men. And she had the sickening feeling he was dead too.
Someone wanted to make sure that none of the men talked. But who? And why?
She didn’t want to take the time to dwell further on it. It wasn’t safe hanging around here any longer. When she turned to leave, her gaze immediately zeroed in on the bare foot partially hidden beneath the floor-length bed coverlet. She bit back a gasp as a cold shiver of dread overtook her. The rest of the body lay hidden under the bed, but she didn’t have the courage to go over there and prove it was David Franklin.
The killer might still be near. Sickening fear rushed through her in forceful waves. Without hesitation, she rushed out the door, slamming it closed behind her. Cringing, she leaned back against it and attempted to calm her racing heart.
The fact this was the third time she’d faced death didn’t make it any less frightening or sickening. Her stomach rolled with the threat of vomiting. Taking several calming breaths she then exhaled slowly. It didn’t work. She was dealing with something far more sinister than she’d anticipated. The situation left her feeling hopelessly clueless and she hated feeling so vulnerable. Her special vision of sight wasn’t even working. It was hard to get a grasp on anything. I can’t give up. It wasn’t in her nature. Maybe the visions would come when she most needed them. In the past, her visions of The Book had led her to clues at just the opportune time. If she was going to solve this, she had to be strong. And patient.
I need answers, but I don’t think I will find them here, now. The previous two events the killer, he or she, left no clues behind. She wasn’t a detective, but she’d spent her adult life following clues to help her obtain rare books. She'd recognized the signs of a clean-up when she encountered the last two murders.
I have to get away from here. For some strange reason, her fear was stronger here than at the other two deaths. Hurrying from the room and out into the night she saw movements in every shadow. The hair on her arms rose. The uncanny feeling someone was watching her made her hurry her steps. Stopping in the parking lot of the hotel she took one last thorough look around, but saw nothing out of the ordinary, then took off running toward her car.
Oddly weak and suddenly, violently nauseated, she leaned against her car door to catch her breath. A few long minutes later her body relaxed. The after-midnight air was warm and muggy, with the threat of a summer storm hovering above the city. Sweat trickled down her neck into the V of her silk bra. Anticipating the cold blast of air conditioning, she reached into her jeans back pocket and fished out her car key.
The only warning was the soft swish of wind overhead, and the darker-than-the-night shadow that covered her and her car. Startled, she looked up.
A large hand roughly covered her mouth, cutting off her scream. The icy-cold hand drove a shiver through her entire body. Sara froze where she stood. An odd, biting cold swept through her pores, sinuously flowed into her veins, and irrevocably headed straight to her heart. Her heartbeat stuttered. Panic overwhelmed her logical mind. What’s happening to me?
“Calm your mind,” a deep, velvet voice murmured in her ear. “Do it, now, Sara. Focus on calm.”
Focus on calm? Her mysterious captor knew who she was, but she didn’t recognize his voice. Calming down wasn’t an option. Shaking her head, she mumbled against his hand, “Let me go.”
“Obtain calmness first, only then will I release you.”
Oddly, his hypnotic, melodic voice encouraged her to obey his command. Closing her eyes, she reached down deep inside her, past the spreading, numbing cold, and somehow managed to pull up a reserve of calmness she didn’t realize she possessed. As soon as she took a deep breath and exhaled against his hand, warmth started to seep through her body. Another long exhale and she relaxed a little. He removed his hand. Sara swung around to face him, unable to stop her shocked gasp.
He towered over her five-feet-four frame like a giant, dark bulk, easily standing six-feet-three. The black T-shirt and black jeans he wore molded to his muscled frame like a glove, emphasizing every lethal inch of a hard, well-toned body. The nearest lamplight from the hotel allowed her to get a better look at him. Her gaze flew to his face, his shadowed, angular jaw line, wide sensuous mouth, slanted dark blond brows, and aristocratic nose. It was hard to tell the exact color of his hair in the dark of the night, but it looked to be a honey blond, and he wore it tied back. When she finally looked into his eyes, she choked back a mixture of surprise and fear. One of his eyes was lapis in color. The other was a darker sapphire. It was the most unusual combination she’d ever seen.
For long, tense moments her gaze remained trapped by his hypnotic one. Her mind felt blank, oddly calm. She had to remember to blink. He appeared indifferent to her intent perusal, but she wasn’t so sure when his strange, fascinating eyes suddenly narrowed. Shocked, she recognized a restrained heat glowing in the strange blue depths.
Sara swallowed a gulp of trepidation. The feeling that they’d met before was overwhelmingly strong and disconcerting, but this man was someone not easily forgotten. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence to be accosted by a giant Adonis.
She cleared a throat gone dry. “Who are you? And why did you sneak up on me like that?” When he didn’t immediately answer, she took a cautious sidestep. “I’m warning you, I know how to protect myself.” Okay, she knew a few karate moves and that was all, but he didn’t have to know that. Bravely meeting his intense stare, she crossed her arms over her chest in what she hoped was a defiant-looking stance. In a too vulnerable position, she knew better than to show any fear.
The slight curve of a grin creased his face, drawing her gaze there. “Ah, Venetrix, you are a contradiction I didn’t expect.”
Sara blinked several times. His voice was velvet dark. Mesmerizing. Incredibly sensual. She’d never heard another man’s voice that sexy. No doubt he used that voice to easily compel someone to do just about anything. Including her. Not good. She shook her head to clear the sensual cobwebs away. It was bad enough she was having this unusual reaction to him. Her senses seemed to be on overload, causing her to notice everything about this strange man, his dark handsomeness, his evocative scent that reminded her of rich spices and all-male enticement, his compelling eyes, and his melodic voice. Get a grip. He’s just a man. The contradictory thought had her holding back a grin.
Suddenly she realized that he’d called her Venetrix. If she remembered her French, it meant “huntress.” Hoping to look casual, she arched her eyebrows. “Why did you call me that?”
Did he know her, and why she was here tonight? This didn’t bode well. She had kept her search a secret, not knowing who, if anyone, she could trust to help her find out the cause behind her father’s murder and who his murderer was. But someone did know because he or she had been one step ahead of her in locating the names on her father’s secret list, and killing them. Her mind raced with questions as she studied the man in front of her. How much did this stranger know? Shivering, she took another step back. What if he was the killer?
The stranger smiled then. A slow, wide smile lit up his face and made him look younger. “Running from me isn’t going to help you solve your mystery, Venetrix,” he said as she took another back step. “And I called you that because you are a huntress. Is not your special gift of sight always a steady and constant guide in your life to what you do and where you go?”
Unease infused her whole body, clenching her muscles, tightening her nerve endings. He knew too much about her. Only her father and closest friend, Kathleen, knew about her gift of visions. It wasn’t something you advertised to a world that saw it as foolish or even dangerous. He was right. The special gift she had been born with had guided her most of her life in everything she did. But how did he know about her secret?
The stranger suddenly jerked his head in the direction of the hotel. His entire body stiffened, and he sniffed the air. Sara frowned. He sniffed the air? What the heck was going on here? Warning bells rang in her head and she had the intense urge to flee now and ask questions later.
The stranger made the decision for her. “We have to leave. Now. Get in the car. I’ll drive.”