She was naked and on her knees. And so was the warm male body behind her.
That was her only coherent thought as equal parts pleasure, deep and intense to an almost terrifying degree, and frustration racked her body. She arched, the back of her head digging into the shoulder behind it, her breasts pushing harder into the warm male hands cupping them, rhythmically squeezing them.
Shivers raced down her taut frame when soft lips pressed against the side of her neck, setting off tiny explosions on the acutely sensitive skin. Her nails dug into straining thighs when a tongue flicked out to tease the pulsing vein in her neck.
Her inner muscles contracted, anticipating the invasion of the erection pressing, burning into her buttocks. She moaned. It was a low, strangled sound of need.
“Tell me you want me,” came the raspy demand whispered directly into her ear, caressing it. “Tell me you want”—she inhaled sharply at the small thrust of his pelvis against her bottom—“this.”
She writhed in his hold, trapped from behind by the hard body and from the front by the hands kneading her aching breasts, but she didn’t writhe to get away. She writhed because the friction was delicious and sinful and gave her a measure of relief from the need coiled in her middle. It had been much, much too long.
Eyes at half mast, she drew her lower lip between her teeth and bit down as her restless hands haltingly rubbed up and down the length of his smooth thighs. She pressed back and widened her knees slightly, silently begging him to come into her from behind and pump toward the release they both needed.
Through the haze, she felt two sharp points scrape almost delicately across her skin. They pushed down, piercing her flesh—and pain slashed through the fog of pleasure clouding her brain.
* * * * *
Mercy Jansen came awake with a jolt, sitting straight up in her bed, sheets tangled about her body. Her body was damp, heavy, and seemed to throb, beating out remembered desire.
For long seconds she sat there, listening to her heartbeat echoing in her head.
Oh, Jesus. Not again.
Mercy raked her hair back with both hands. This couldn’t be healthy. Having dreams—erotic dreams, at that—about a vampire. Mental note to self: No more pre-born-again Anne Rice novels before bed. She laughed weakly. Very weakly. After three consecutive months, she no longer found the dreams amusing. They were beyond disconcerting. Especially since she always woke up just before he drew blood.
Mercy closed her eyes and shivered. What would happen if she didn’t wake at that point? Was this the precursor to insanity?
Despite herself, she trailed her fingers from the swift pulse in her neck down between her breasts, down past her navel, and farther still. Her breath caught in her throat when she found her center warm and creamy. But what unsettled her was she still desired the man—the thing—of her nightmares. Thrilling, sensuous, erotic…but still nightmares when she lacked control and feared them too much to see them through to the end.
Jesus Christ. She needed to get out of here and away from these none-too-pleasant thoughts.
Mercy swung her legs off the bed and onto the floor, taking the sheet with her, wrapped about her body sarong style, and escaped the bedroom.
* * * * *
Needing fresh air to clear her muddled head, Mercy tucked herself into the large, deeply cushioned porch swing on the back deck with a tall glass of ice water numbing her hands despite the unseasonably warm weather. The ice clinked almost soothingly as she brought the glass to her lips and sipped. Her parched throat relieved, Mercy placed the glass on the wooden floor of the deck and settled back, pulling the sheet about her more securely.
It was a beautiful night, and she congratulated herself for having the foresight to purchase a home on the outskirts of the city. It was quiet here, peaceful, and without the pollution that wouldn’t allow her to see each glittering, preening star so clearly. She could almost trace their needle-thin outlines. Moreover, even if there weren’t towering trees and vegetation around to ensure her privacy, her closest neighbor was much farther than a holler away. It was an inconvenience to commute to work on the mornings she had to go into the office, but it was a small price to pay for the privacy she’d learned to treasure growing up as a ward of the state.
Mercy closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, and just as slowly, released it, feeling the tension seep from her back and shoulders, leaving them as limp as silk pooled on a bedroom floor. The air had a nip to it, enough to make the sheet necessary to keep her toasty and drowsy. A yawn caught her off-guard and made her eyelids feel heavy. More seconds ticked by before she tumbled off that edge between wakefulness and sleep.
The soft touch began in her hair. Long fingers combed through the strands before traveling down to trace the contours of her face. Mercy stirred but didn’t waken when her neck received similar treatment. A quiet sound slipped past her lips and was swallowed by a mouth that covered hers. It moved lightly, sensuously over her parted lips. Even in her sleep, Mercy knew how to respond, needed to respond.
Her mouth opened wider, an invitation her dream lover accepted. Cradling her head in both hands, he stroked his tongue inside her mouth, exploring the sides, the roof, her tongue. He shifted her head to deepen the kiss, still keeping it leisurely and sensuous.
Mercy moaned when she felt another pair of hands divesting her of the protective sheet. The hands unwrapped her slowly, carefully, as if savoring a gift. The spaghetti straps of her nightgown were slipped off her shoulders and pushed down past her elbows. She shivered when the night air washed over her naked breasts.
She cried out against the mouth still making love to hers when two more paid homage to her breasts. Dear God. Hands stroked up and down her sides as two mouths covered her nipples and suckled, teasing her with delicious threat of teeth.
Her sound of need was choked when her breasts were left bereft, then morphed into a groan when hands kneaded her breasts, giving her a measure of relief. Her crumpled nightgown was rucked up to expose the lower half of her body. A pointed tongue teased her navel, flicking in and out of her bellybutton before trailing its way down to her pulsing sex, making her thighs fall open.
Mercy tried to draw back from the mouth that ate at hers, but the hands tangled in her hair wouldn’t let her escape. Instead, he—whoever he was—kissed her even more voraciously, forcing her head back. A muffled sound escaped her as she tried to draw air through her nostrils. Fire sizzled her nerve endings and her hips arched off the porch swing when a mouth pressed deeply, intimately against her sex.
It was enough to send a ripple through her dream, nudging her towards wakefulness. She was slow, reluctant even, in crossing that bridge. Lashes fluttered then lifted. The hands and mouths retreated.
She inhaled sharply. It wasn’t fear but shock, mild because she’d been expecting him—it—on some level. He stood there, a solitary figure against the moonlit sky, and yet shadowed so she could barely make out his features. A small hysterical laugh threatened to bubble from her. The only things missing were a flash of lightning in the backdrop and a cape whipping in the wind. But there were no lightning and no cape, only a looming shadow of a man in the distance, watching her intently. Mercy hastily rewrapped herself in the sheet. The crazy idea he was responsible for her dreams teased her brain, then burrowed deep.
There was a gleam of eerie white. He was smiling. His lips moved. His words were slow, as was that disconcerting smile. “Soon, Mercy, soon.”
And she awoke, a hand pressed to her madly beating heart.
Mercy snatched a glass of champagne from a passing waiter to keep her company as she went in search of air not ladened with perfume and the muskiness of sweat. Event organizer or not, she deserved a respite after spending the better part of the night eluding an amorous Henry VIII. She had made a thoughtless comment about him having to have a lot of stamina to go through six wives, and Henry had taken that as a come-on.
Recalling Henry’s pudgy swimming pool palms, Mercy shuddered, lifted the slim flute to her lips, and swallowed a mouthful of chilled, bubbly liquid, hoping to wash away the recollection. The champagne slid down her throat and hit her empty stomach. It gurgled, making her grimace as she shot her gaze around, hoping no one was within hearing distance. Not that anyone should be since this area was cordoned off from the public for the event.
As she hurried along the corridor, the din of noise—a blend of voices, clinking glass and silverware, and the lilting strains from a string quartet—receded and the tight, invisible band around her head eased. She never did like crowds. However, after looking at the museum’s financial statements last quarter, the fundraiser had been a necessary evil.
The event had turned out better than she’d anticipated. Then again, the novelty of a costumed gala to celebrate the Valentine’s Day opening of the museum’s latest exhibit of Native American artifacts had been sure to attract the movers and shakers of this city.
Or at least the women who’d wanted to play dress-up and dragged their partners along.
Her office came into sight, and a sigh of relief escaped her. Thank, God. She quickened her pace, the soft leather soles of her flat sandals making no noise on the polished marble floor. She extended a hand and wrapped her fingers around the knob, taking a brief solace in the cool metal. She’d been warm all evening, despite the sheerness of her costume.
She opened her office door and stole inside the darkened space like she was doing something illicit. With her foot, she closed the door and reached back to twist the lock for good measure before raising the champagne flute to her mouth. It was empty. Mercy reached for the lamp on her desk and flipped it on. Golden light spilled onto the cluttered desktop and threw the rest of the room into shadows. She held the glassware before her eyes, bemused. She didn’t remembering draining it.
With exaggerated care, she set the flute on her desk.
“Would you care for another?”
With a yelp of surprise, Mercy whirled around, sending layers of colorful silk flaring around her bare legs. “What the—”
She placed a hand over her left breast, as if needing confirmation her heart really hadn’t stopped beating. A caped figure, gathered in shadows, stood just beyond the open door she was positive she’d closed and locked. It glided forward, the shadows seeming to move with it. Impossibly blue eyes captured hers. Mercy’s instincts screamed at her to move back, to run away, but her rigid muscles couldn’t obey.
“My apologies for startling you,” continued the smooth, rich voice that rivaled aged brandy, stirring something in her memories. “Mercy Jansen.”
Hearing her name spoken by that voice jolted her from her paralysis. She stumbled back, as graceless as a newborn colt testing its legs for the first time. All too soon the edge of her desk hit her backside. With great effort she dropped her gaze, cutting the eye-to-eye contact, and the mist that hovered in her brain lifted.
Why was she acting like a nitwit bimbo from a teenage slasher flick? He was just another attendee.
Who’d followed her to a secluded part of the museum, well away from the crowd.
Get a grip, Jansen.
Mercy straightened away from the desk and pushed back the tangled fall of hair from her face, wishing she’d opted for the old schoolmarm costume. But no-o-o, she’d just had to indulge that whim to be girly.
She glanced up, deliberating skirting the eyes, and could not stop herself from staring rudely. Count Dracula, the young and romantic version, stood before her. He wasn’t tall, perhaps a few inches under average, but what he lacked in stature he made up for with drama. Midnight curls gleamed with blue highlights and fell to shoulders draped in a black satin cape with a high, stiff collar that ended in dangerous-looking points. The floor-length garment was open, revealing the brilliant gleam of the crimson inner lining. Startlingly white lace spilled from his throat and tight cuffs, hiding all but long, elegant fingers that were paler and better manicured than her own. A touch of modernity was in the shiny leather pants encasing slim legs. Mercy blinked and felt her eyebrows inch up. She had the absurd urge to ask if he’d had to be stitched into the pants, they were so tight.
Bracing herself for the impact, her eyes traveled back up. The beauty of his face was dazzling, if a touch too feminine for her taste. He looked like he should be the front man of a Japanese boy band. Full lips, aquiline nose, high cheekbones, arching eyebrows, and sweeping lashes long enough to make her envious. And he looked like she had a decade on him.
That final observation, more than anything else, allowed Mercy to gather her wits.
“I’m sorry, but guests are not allowed in this area.”
He moved deeper into the office. “You sound a little hoarse,” he said, ignoring her statement, and held out a full champagne flute. “Take this.”
Mercy automatically accepted the offering. “Thank you, Mr.—?”
“Edmond,” he said, a hint of an accent flavoring the name. It sounded French, which suited the name and his Gallic coloring.
“Thank you, Mr. Edmond.”
He shook his head but his hair barely moved. “Just Edmond.”
Like just Madonna? she wanted to ask but refrained from doing so.
He lifted his own flute, tipping it toward her. Feeling awkward, she touched her flute to his, very aware of his eyes following her every movement. Not wanting to insult a man who’d forked over three hundred dollars for a ticket to the fundraiser and a potential donor, Mercy took a sip, enough to coat her mouth and her esophagus.
And squeezed her eyes shut as her head swam and her hand faltered, tilting the flute dangerously. She really should’ve eaten something beyond the banana and carton of cherry yogurt at lunch.
A hand caught hers. She had the impression of icy coldness a heartbeat before warmth washed over her like rain. The champagne flute was rescued from her unsteady fingers. Despite the voluntary darkness, her head continued to bob. Her hand reached back and found the solid surface of her desk.
That compelling voice filled her head, dampening the waves. She exhaled, unaware she’d been holding her breath until that moment. A heavy, artificial scent filled her nostrils, and she turned her head away. Satin brushed the naked skin of her legs, cool and slick. His cape. Fingertips skimmed the curve of her cheek, the line of her throat, the slope of her exposed shoulder. She couldn’t protest, couldn’t stir herself from the lassitude that trapped her in its silken grip. Not even long enough to lift her lashes, let alone break away.
The exploration continued, soft and gentle and warm…and somehow familiar.
There was nothing to fear from him. That thought whispered through her mind like a tendril of smoke.
Mercy let herself drift, let the sensual pleasure of his touch lull her.
The hand holding hers drew it upward until her palm met a chest that felt like marble under the layer of cloth. Soft lips grazed her jaw line. He whispered her name again. From the jumbled, hazy mess of her thoughts, one question emerged.
“What are you?” she breathed.
Lips brushed her earlobe. “The man of your dreams.”
* * * * *
She wasn’t here. Mercy Jansen wasn’t among the five hundred or so costumed attendees indulging in free-flowing alcohol and tiny hors d’oeuvres that would look ridiculous held between his fingers.
Ryan McGinnis knew she wasn’t there because after three months of surveillance he would’ve been able to locate her in a crowd by her scent alone.
Scanning the room even though he knew he wouldn’t find her, Ryan cursed the Council. What in his last damned report hadn’t been clear? And why question him tonight of all nights? Even after he’d bit out why leaving Mercy Jansen alone even for a minute tonight was an extremely bad idea, he hadn’t been allowed to leave. And that was when he’d studied each member of the Council and, with a new level of cynicism, judged them, weighed them.
Christ, where could she be? She was trying to raise funds for the museum, so shouldn’t she be milling about, making nice with all the moneyed people?
Joséphine and a man too thin and too tall to be a convincing Napoléon Bonaparte passed by in front of him. Ryan ignored the appraising looks the tipsy pair aimed in his direction. Frustration flared. The woman, who was usually as predictable as a Swiss timepiece, had to choose tonight of all nights to deviate from expected behavior.
* * * * *
The man of your dreams.
As the mouth suckled at a bared breast, her thoughts slowly—oh-so painfully slowly—wove themselves together, one fragile thread at a time because the electrical pulses between the neurons in her brain had slowed to one frame per second. The picture that emerged made her think she’d lost more than just her Catholic sense of inhibition.
The sense of déjà vu was nearly overwhelming. She’d felt this before. She’d done this before.
She’d dreamt this before.
Her breath shuddered out of her lungs. As if they were trying to push through a wall of molasses, her hands came up and braced against his shoulders. She dug in the heels of her palms and pushed. He didn’t budge. If anything, those deceptively slim arms encircling her tightened further.
Fear quickened her pulse.
Then she felt them. The warning dual scrapes of dangerously sharp points on her skin. She struggled wildly. Or thought she did. She couldn’t be sure because her limbs felt heavy and clumsy, like she’d been dosed with Benadryl. A sound of frustration filled her head. Then it was too late as she cried out at the searing blaze of pain in her breast.
The wet sucking sounds were abnormally loud and filled her with revulsion and renewed strength. Tears stung her eyes as she fisted her hands in his hair and tried to yank his head back, but the locks of hair slid through her fingers like water. Something slammed against her head, and another cry escaped her. Lights burst behind her closed eyelids, then a piercing pain, as if a sharp object was trying to bore its way into her brain. Disjointed images flashed in her mind’s eye. Her hands came up to cradle her head, knead her temples to ease the pain, but nothing—
There was a loud crash, muffled as if it came from a distance, and suddenly, the pain was gone.
* * * * *
Ryan took in the scene between one panicked heartbeat and the next. Mercy Jansen, half-naked, eyes glittering with tears, skin as pale as the monster he’d just pulled off her—except for the ugly crimson smear staining one breast and the equally ugly, equally crimson rivulet trickling down her chest.
He didn’t think. He spun around and launched himself at the creature he’d bodily thrown out into the corridor. The element of surprise, however, was no longer his. A booted foot met his torso, sending him flying back onto the floor as the air was forcibly expelled from his lungs. He slid on his back until his head thumped against the desk. Momentarily stunned, it took him precious seconds to flip back onto his feet.
He heard a hiss and caught a glimpse of bare fangs as fingers closed around his neck like a steel manacle. Before the vampire could dig in his fingernails and rip out a much-needed larynx, Ryan struck the creature’s elbow with the heel of his palm, exerting enough force to break it had his opponent been human. As it was, it weakened his target enough for him to encircle the wrist and twist the captured arm into an arm bar. He let gravity take his weight to the ground and heard a pop.
With an inhuman shout of pain and rage, the vampire tore his dislocated arm from Ryan’s grip, rolled away, and delivered a vicious kick that managed to break through Ryan’s block, stunning him for the second time tonight. The vampire flew to his feet and threw himself at the large window behind the desk. Glass shattered like an explosion had gone off, and even knowing the shards would be flying out the window, Ryan automatically whipped his head to the side to protect his face.
Cursing viciously, he ran to the window, hands braced on either side of the frame, and scanned the night sky from left to right. The moon was out, crisp and bone white, but the vampire was long gone. Despite knowing what he would find, he looked down. There were only the broken shards of glass reflecting the moonlight up at him. No body.
Vampires could fly. Ryan still needed a jet engine and wings.
A moan, faint and abruptly bitten off, drifted to him. He turned toward the sound and felt something inside him clench painfully. Mercy was huddled against a bookshelf in a corner, having dragged herself there while he’d been otherwise engaged. Her breathing was labored and shallow and her forehead lined with pain. One white-knuckled hand clung to a shelf just above her head, which she rested against the raised forearm. The other hand cradled a plump breast, the one marred by blood still trickling from two puncture wounds. Having been bitten himself, he knew her flesh would be throbbing with searing pain.
With a muttered curse, he crossed the room, whipping his leather jacket off before he reached her side. He went down on his haunches and draped the garment over her shoulders. She flinched, and her eyelids flew open, pinning Ryan with Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes. They stunned him, not the incredible shade of violet staring back at him, but the fear he could read underneath the drug-induced fog clouding her vision.
The French prick with the overgrown canines seemed to prefer his victims insensible.
Her lips parted, as if to protest his presence, but only a choked sound emerged as she shrank away from him.
Ryan quickly held out his hands, palms out, trying to look non-threatening and knowing he was probably failing miserably.
“Hey, I’m not going to hurt you,” he explained. The words were quiet but hoarse since the muscles in his throat, like the muscles in the rest of his body, ached with the suppressed need to make someone pay for the look in her eyes. As his fingers curled into fists, he lowered his hands to hide them from her gaze. “Let me help you, Mercy.”
Her eyes flared at the sound of her name. She started to shake her head as if to clear it and stopped mid-movement, the lines of pain etched on her face deepening. He reached for her, then thought better of it when she went rigid. His hands stopped an inch away from touching her. Frustration ripped through him. “Damn it, I have to get you away from here. It’s not safe.”
She’d either decided to trust him or could no longer fight the sedatives in her system. Either way, her eyes drifted shut and her body went limp. He caught her before she hit the floor.
After tugging his jacket more tightly around her, he rose with her in his arms, her head lolling against his shoulder and her hair streaming over his arm. She felt light, insubstantial, and he had to gather her more closely against him.
Read more on Before Dawn.
Copyright © 2008, 2012 by Ann Bruce. All rights reserved.