Chapter One

 

I like big beds.

I like wide, comfy mattresses that allow me to stretch to my heart’s desire and roll over as many times as I please. What’s more, I like bedmates that don’t take up the space I lovingly maintain around me.

Alex wasn’t that kind of a bedmate.

Alex was a cuddler, which I more than appreciated after naughty-times, but suffocated me in my sleep, when the weight of an arm pressed my chest down or a hard body kept me from turning around.

He also snored from time to time, which made no sense, since he no longer needed to breathe. I guess old habits die hard.

I wouldn’t have made a big deal out of any of these things this morning, if I didn’t wake up to Alex spooning me from behind, both of his arms wrapped around me like steel bars, and his voice whispering in my ear, “I want you to meet my mother.”

And I certainly wouldn’t have kicked him off the bed, if he didn’t add, “And I want to meet your family.”

 

****

 

“What did you do that for?” Alex rubbed his head where it had impacted with the wall. He was still on the floor where he landed, staring at me.

I sat up and bunched the covers around me, still not fully believing I did what I did—or that he actually said what I heard.

“Cherry? What’s up? And ow, by the way.” He didn’t seem as pissed off as I’d be in his place. “Did you have another nightmare? Think I was Willoughby again?”

His concern made me feel bad. To be honest, I never had nightmares of Willoughby. At times when Alex was too clingy in my sleep, however, I may have elbowed him in the ribs or kicked him in the shin and afterward implied I thought he was my maker, haunting my dreams. He was having nightmares of his turning too, so he believed me.

I shook my head. “Not him,” I said. “Different nightmare. About you wanting us to meet each other’s folks.”

That got him fuming in no time, which worked out quite well, because I wasn’t feeling all lovey-dovey.

“Why’s that so bad? My mother’s been hearing about you for two months now. She wants to meet you.” And this was a glaring example of why we should let our family think we died after our turning. If the vampire council caught a whiff of Alex’s staying in touch with his mother, they might resort to extreme measures.

Then again, they’d have to know he was a vampire, for them to even care, so it was a moot point. After the havoc that resulted to his turning, the vampire council reinstated the Vampire Social Services, to help tighten the bonds within our community. They also decreed a census, to record all vampires currently in the United States. We’d kept Alex’s change in status a secret, to avoid dealing with the repercussions of breaking the law against turning new fledglings.

“What if she doesn’t like me?” ’Cause loveable as I am, this was always a possibility. I didn’t voice my worries that I might not like her. “And you can’t meet my family. I can’t meet my family again. They think I’m dead.”

“They think you’re missing. Finding out you’re still”—he scrunched his face—“around would be the greatest thing to ever happen to them.” He was using his rational voice on me, something that probably worked when he interrogated suspects, but which I hated when I was feeling unreasonable. He got on his feet and dusted plaster off his hair. “And my mom will love you. Just like I do.”

Yeah, okay. Play the I-love-you card, why don’t you? “We’ll talk about it,” I said. “I’ll ask Constantine what he thinks. He knows the council better than I do, and they like him.” If they didn’t, they’d have publicly executed him for admitting to killing two of their own. Instead, they had him join them. “If he thinks it’s safe for me to go home, we’ll visit my family.”

There was no way my ex would condone something like this. It was reckless and might endanger us all—plus he might be acting cool and superior, but I could tell he wasn’t happy with my relationship with Alex.

Alex must have realized Constantine would say no, because he kicked dejectedly at the floor and came back to bed with a scowl on his face. “I’ll talk to him too. Maybe I can convince him,” he said, standing in front of me in his birthday suit.

He could certainly try. Meanwhile, I’d do my best to make him forget about the whole thing.

I smiled, slid to the edge of the bed, and let the covers drop, to reveal a state of undress that matched his. I traced the lines of his body—hard muscle under soft skin that shivered ever so slightly under my touch.

His gaze was locked on mine, as I replaced my fingers with my mouth down his stomach. I loved the texture, the smoothness of his skin. I feathered my lips along his hipbone and felt his legs tremble. I loved his body’s involuntary responses. Smiling to myself, I brought one hand around him and dug my nails into his buttock, pushing him against my face.

He rudely interrupted my efforts at driving him crazy with anticipation, by stepping back, grabbing my knees, and laying me flat on the bed in one smooth move. Before I could voice my protest, he was kissing me.

I arched upward and wrapped my legs around his hips, but he resisted, his body hovering above me. “No.” The single word was heavy with promise.

He kissed me again, teasing my mouth open with his tongue and finding mine. The kiss deepened, as did my need for him. When he sucked on my lower lip, I ran one hand down the length of my body and between my legs, where I wanted him the most.

He closed his fingers around my wrist and forced my hand to the mattress. “Be a good girland don’t move.” His cool breath tickled my ear.

It’s not like me to submit without a fight, but the lust burning in his gaze stifled my rebellious side. I tangled both hands in the sheets, to keep from touching him.

His mouth moved down the side of my neck, kissing and licking the area over my jugular. I wanted him to bite me. I wanted to push against him. I held back. He barely let a fang graze my skin and chuckled at the whiny sound that escaped my throat.

The bastard.

He made his way down my body with his lips and fingers, pulling sighs and moans out of me with every kiss, every caress, every nip. My nipples hardened at his touch. My stomach tightened. Every nerve in my body screamed for more, but he refused to give it. By the time his face was at the apex of my thighs, I craved him beyond reason. I couldn’t be held accountable for my actions if he didn’t sink inside me immediately.

Only Alex wasn’t done teasing me.

He closed his teeth over the sensitive flesh at the inside of my thigh without breaking the skin, and sucked while pushing a finger inside me.

My hips flew off the mattress, and my eyes watered at the pressure building up in my belly. I needed just a bit more. More pressure. More friction. I needed him to add another finger and pump them both. I needed him to eat me out. I needed him to—Oh God

He didn’t do what I wanted but he didn’t withdraw, either. Instead, he splayed the fingers of his free hand on my stomach to hold me down and pierced my skin with his fangs at the same time he pressed his thumb on my clit.

I thought I was going to scream, but only a hoarse whisper reached my ears when I managed to form a word. “Please.”

He either didn’t hear me or ignored me. He drew lazy circles with his thumb around my clitoris and slid his finger in and out so slowly, I couldn’t get the more I needed. He kept pulling at my blood, and the sensation was enough to drive me to the precipice but not to throw me over.

Pleading obviously didn’t work, so this time I went with an order. “Now.”

Alex was not in a compliant mood. He stopped touching me entirely and raised his gaze to mine, making sure I watched as he licked his lips. Once he had my undivided attention, he lowered his head again and slowly ran his tongue along my cleft.

That was when I stopped being nice.

I grabbed his hair to anchor him to me and began grinding against his face, urging him to go faster. Harder. If he wanted to play Hold off Cherry’s Release, I’d take matters in my own hands.

I was so close—so fucking close—when he forcefully removed my hands from his head and rolled me over.

Now we’re talking.

The bed was too tall for my knees to reach the ground, and my legs dangled awkwardly. I tried to find purchase on the floor with my toes, but Alex nudged my thighs apart with one knee, throwing me completely off balance, and pushed inside me.

Can’t say I complained about the manhandling. Perhaps I would have, if I weren’t enjoying it so much. I’ve always loved seeing Alex’s mild manners put aside and this dominant side of his come out in the bedroom—bathroom, kitchen, public place, wherever.

He dug his fingers into my hips and lifted me to meet his thrusts. I didn’t have time to push my body up with my arms. My face was rubbing against the mattress, but all I felt was the fire he stoked inside me with every plunge. Every time he withdrew, I clenched around him, trying to lock him and the pleasure in place. My fangs popped out, and I bit at the sheets, uncaring that I’d leave holes in them. I was nearly there nearly there nearly—

Alex’s movements turned jerkier, shorter. He draped his body over mine, letting go of my hips so he could wrap his arms around my torso. I let him draw me to him and tilted my head to the side, to get my hair out of the way.

The moment his fangs pierced my throat, everything I wanted, everything my body craved for suddenly flooded my senses, short-circuiting my brain. I couldn’t tell which of us was trembling. All I knew was that, pinned to him, torn sheets hanging from my mouth, I felt my body shudder with waves of pleasure until I could no longer keep my eyes open.

Alex obviously had problems controlling himself, too, because his knees buckled, and we toppled forward, his teeth and cock still inside me.

In my fuzziness, I barely registered his tongue gently licking the wounds he’d inflicted, before he rolled to the side and gathered me close. It’s possible I purred with delight. This was one of the times I not only didn’t mind the cuddling but welcomed it.

I don’t know if I drifted off or just zoned out, but I’d been too engrossed in my efforts to distract him, to realize someone else was in the room.

Until Constantine cleared his throat.

 

Chapter Two

 

Asking my ex if he’d watched my current lover and me having earth-shattering sex would lead to all kinds of awkwardness, so I opted for yelling at Constantine to get out of the room and go wait for us in the kitchen.

He left with the huff and flourish that accompanied him since he became a member of the vampire council.

“Come on, before he pitches a fit.” Alex tossed my jeans and a top on the bed.

I ignored the clothes and watched him slide into his own jeans. The sight made up for the cramped sleeping arrangements. “He can wait.” I stretched on my back and reached with my toes for one of his belt loops. “I think you should come back to bed.”

“And I think you should stop avoiding him.” He was right. I was avoiding Constantine. I bet Alex didn’t know why, though.

I wasn’t sure why I did it. I only knew I felt odd being couple-y with Alex in front of my ex. It was like I rubbed his face into my happiness with a man who wasn’t him. The lingering looks Constantine gave me from time to time didn’t help much, either. They weren’t looks of longing. He studied me, as if dissecting me. Trying to read my mind. He never said a word against Alex—or for him, to be honest—but his general disposition had turned snarkier. Gloomier. Not that he’d been a ray of sunshine to begin with, but sensing I was the reason for his change made me feel bad.

“I can’t deal with his smartassness first thing in the morning,” I said. Pulling the covers over my head acted like an end to the conversation. Or so I thought.

Alex drew the covers away and leaned over me, now fully dressed. “Get up. Stop being a five-year-old. He may have something important to tell us.”

He had a point. Constantine or his people—council members always have people—might have finally spotted Willoughby. With a groan meant to show my displeasure, I got up and put on my clothes. “Let’s go,” I said and led the way.

 

****

 

Constantine sat at the table, entirely out of place in the spacious, well-lit kitchen. It wasn’t his age that put him at odds with the modern tiles, shiny lacquered-wood and glass surfaces, and metal elements. He looked mid-thirties and hot, his long blond hair framing an angular face devoid of wrinkles. Only his blue eyes betrayed he’d seen much more than his smooth skin and casual attire indicated.

His jeans and white T-shirt weren’t too stylish for him to be in a place where food was prepared and served, so that couldn’t be it either.

Eyes narrowed, I studied him until realization sunk in. It was his posture that made him clash with the surroundings. He held his back straight, shoulders square, and chin up, as though he were royalty sitting on his throne, waiting for peasants to bring forth their offers.

I so wouldn’t be one of them.

“Nice of you to finally join us,” he said.

“Like we had a choice.” I’d known he’d be sarcastic. I should have come up with a reply that had more bite.

Liza, who was never too far from Constantine, threw me a scolding look from her perch on the kitchen counter, her black eyebrows furrowed. She was absolutely gorgeous and had been an aspiring model when my old talent agent delivered her to my maker, who wanted to add her to his undead army of models.

Alex, Constantine, and I rescued Liza and two other fledglings from Ádísa and her cohorts. Constantine took the girls in, and they more or less worshipped the ground he stood on.

Now I itched to tell Liza I’d been in Constantine’s life much longer than she had, and could therefore speak to the man she viewed as a god any way I pleased, but it seemed petty. Instead, I returned her look and took a seat across from my ex. Alex pulled out a chair between us, turned it around, and straddled it.

“Talk,” I said to Constantine.

“Would you like something to drink first?”

I looked around. “Where’s Wesley? I could go for some coffee. And maybe eggs.” Constantine’s human butler and his incredible cooking skills were among the perks of living at the mansion. Normal food doesn’t sate our hunger, but we enjoy the hell out of it.

“Wesley is busy. Liza has brewed tea.”

“Then no, thanks.”

Next to me Alex shook his head. “I’m good. What’s up?”

“There has been a possible sighting of Willoughby.” Constantine motioned at Liza, and she hurried to refill his teacup.

Gag.

“I can’t say more at this time, but you should be getting ready for a trip at short notice,” he said.

Alex nodded, unperturbed as always by Constantine’s exaggerated air of mystery.

I wasn’t that big a person. “You got us out of bed to tell us someone’s seen the bad guy, but not who or where? What’s next?” I deepened my voice to a basso. “It will rain one day in the near or distant future.” In my normal pitch, I asked, “Was that doomsday-worthy enough for you?”

“Cherry, this is all I can tell you right now. You have to trust me. What matters is we may have a clue as to his surroundings, if not his intentions.”

“A clue you won’t share with the class.”

“I’m sure he’ll tell us more when he knows more.” Alex placed one hand over mine, which I’d apparently fisted without realizing it. His effort at soothing me had the opposite result.

“He knows more now.” I locked my gaze on Constantine’s. “Don’t you?”

Constantine shook his head and smiled ruefully. “When did you become so cynical?”

I scrunched my face in mock concentration, then widened my eyes. “I know. Must have been about the same time I found out you lied to me and our relationship was a sham. Yup, that was the exact moment.”

His eyes were a stormy midnight blue that usually meant anger or extreme pain. Yes, the man came with preinstalled mood-rings on his face.

I wasn’t being fair. His maker had appointed him my sponsor. She wanted me to fall for him, and it hadn’t taken long for that to happen. But at the time, Constantine didn’t know Ádísa had ordered my turning. And contrary to her wishes, he’d really loved me in return. Weeks ago, he insisted he still did.

Liza walked up behind Constantine and laid both hands on his shoulders. Until that moment, I’d only thought of her as Head Concubine. I’d assumed all they shared was sex and blood. Apparently, I’d been at least partially wrong there.

How well she knew him astounded me. Though Constantine’s posture didn’t change, Liza noticed the subtle increase of tension in his body, like I did. Thing was, I couldn’t tell if Constantine’s discomfort was out of guilt over the lies he’d told me in the past—for which he’d atoned by killing his own maker—or because he really knew more about Willoughby than he let on.

I didn’t want it to be the latter. Not when he’d been regaining my trust. My stomach clenched at the possibility. Instead of asking him, I said, “Fine, be mysterious. But while we’re here, can you remind Alex we’re not supposed to keep in touch with our families?” Might as well get one problem out of the way.

The tiny lines of tension around Constantine’s eyes smoothed out, and he relaxed his jaw. Was it me, or did my ex seem relieved by my change of subject?

Before Constantine could speak, Alex piped in. “I want Cherry and me to meet each other’s folks. I know it’s not something vampires do, but I’m still alive as far as my mother knows, and I don’t see how Cherry’s family would be anything but ecstatic to see her again. She was never declared dead, just missing, so she can tell them she was off finding herself or something.”

I didn’t expect the matter-of-fact way he’d presented his case to do him any good. What he was asking went against council policy. No way would Constantine condone it.

Constantine smiled, his irises now faded to their normal light blue. “We have been doing things our own way for a while now.” He shrugged, apparently oblivious to how my mouth gaped at his response. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t do as you please, as long as you’re careful. I will, however, be joining you when you visit Cherry’s parents. As a precautionary measure, in case things go awry. I’ll have to make some arrangements first, but we should be able to leave by the end of the week.”

It was obvious from Alex’s eager expression that he’d go along with anything to get the go-ahead for his silly fantasy. I didn’t exactly view things the same way. It was weird how readily Constantine had agreed.

“Precautionary measure?” I asked. “You plan to mind-wipe them, if our little reunion is threatening to the vampire community?” Meaning if my parents somehow realized I was undead, freaked out, and threatened to tell the world about our existence.

The look he gave me was full of scorn. “No.” The word sounded like it was mentally accompanied by several non-flattering adjectives. “What I had in mind was that you’ll have a member of the council with you, in case another vampire realizes what you’re up to. My presence will make your visit legitimate.” I could swear I heard him finish his sentence in my head with, “You idiot.”

“Oh.” Because, what else could I say? He only had our best interest at heart, and I really should stop being so suspicious of him. If he said it was all right, it probably was. “Okay then, I guess.”

Constantine grinned. “Besides—the three of us on a road trip? Think how much fun it will be.”

Yeah, he was hiding something, all right. All this cheer wasn’t normal. “What’s in it for you?” I asked.

“Just the pleasure of your company.” His mocking tone and arched eyebrow didn’t exactly vouch for his sincerity.

“And what else? Why come with? If you plan on hurting my parents—”

He slammed one hand on the table, making all of us jump. Outbursts were no more like him than cheeriness was. “I’m not planning on hurting anyone, you stubborn woman. I’m coming with, because you’ll need me there.”

I had no response for that.

Liza’s face fell. “Can’t I come with you?” Her big green eyes shone with unshed tears. She was really going to cry, because Constantine would be away for a few days? Or because he’d be with me?

But I had a boyfriend…who was glaring daggers Constantine’s way. Oh-kay.

Constantine tugged at Liza, until she rounded the chair and faced him. “You know Carrie and Sally need you,” he said, his tone grave. “I need you to stay behind and take care of our girls.”

She preened at his show of trust, and I felt bad for her. I’d been there, ready to do anything for his approval. I hoped it ended better for her.

 

****

 

For all his outstanding qualities in and out of bed, Alex wasn’t above snarking.

“So I ask nicely, but all it takes for you to agree is Constantine’s permission. Good to know,” he said with fake cheer, as soon as our bedroom door was closed behind us.

“Thought you got what you wanted.” I turned my back to him, kicked off my slippers, and went to the closet in search of my sneakers. I’d promised Sheena I’d catch a late movie with her, and I’d rather focus on that than what Alex was saying.

“No. Constantine got me what I wanted. And you said nothing when he said you’d want him there.”

“He said I’d need him there, and he’s right. He knows our laws better than me, and he can protect us from the rest of the council. You were the one who thought talking to him about it was a good idea.”

He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and rolled his head from side to side. “Yeah… I’m being an ass. I’ll call my mother and tell her we’ll go by tomorrow evening. She can’t wait to meet the girl I’m constantly talking about.”

Oh, goodie. With or without Constantine’s approval, the idea still held no appeal. “Isn’t it too late for you to call her? Maybe you should do it in the morning and give her a couple days’ notice.”

“Notice for what? She’ll just be making dinner.”

My right sneaker was in front of me, but I couldn’t see the left one. I crouched down and started rummaging through the shoes that littered the floor of my closet. “I don’t know. Notice. Where is the stupid thing? Sheena will kill me if I’m late.”

Sheena wouldn’t say anything, even if I stood her up. She still felt guilty for being the one to introduce me to Willoughby, though she didn’t know what he was at the time.

Alex walked up behind me, bent down, and closed his hand around the second of my shoes, as if by magic. “My mother’s always ready for guests,” he said, holding it out to me.

I grabbed it and squeezed my foot inside without bothering to undo and redo the laces. “Call her in the morning.” By then, I might have found an excuse to avoid that get-together. With a quick peck to his lips, I rushed to the door. “We’ll talk when I’m back. We’re meeting the guy from the blood bank after the movie, so I’ll bring some blood home. Maybe you can try it?” He still refused to drink human blood, saying vampire blood kept him sated for a longer period of time.

I believed he saw drinking human blood as the last step to no longer being human.

Fast as lightning, Alex pinned me to the door, his body hard against my back, his arms framing my shoulders. “I only want your blood,” he whispered harshly, his face in my hair. His erection digging in my back was the least of my concerns.

“Okay, the mood swings? Not doing it for me. You go from mellow to seeing red in no time. Is something bothering you? If you want to talk about it, I can call Sheena and cancel.” I prayed he said yes and finally talked to me about how he really felt about being a vampire. He’d told me how powerless he’d felt when Willoughby drained him—how he hated the fear and the nightmares that followed—but not a word about what he’d become.

He pumped his hips against me. “It’s bothering me that you’re not naked.”

Trying to fuck issues away was my thing. Alex usually insisted it solved nothing. Seeing him resort to the same cheap trick raised a wave of anger inside me.

Let go,” I said. “I have a show to catch.”

He stepped back, and when I turned, his arms were up. Whether in surrender or resignation I couldn’t say. Something clenched in my gut. His lack of a heartbeat wasn’t the only thing different after his turning. I wanted to believe the rest of the changes I saw in him would smoothen out, as he got used to his new reality.

I pulled him down by his shirt and whispered, “Be good.” Then I touched my lips to his once more and went to find my friend and ex-manager.

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