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    Preface

    A dangerous passion...

    Wrath walked into the hall, feeling particularly ferocious. Man, Beth had better be alive and well. Or God help whoever had hurt her.

    And if she'd decided to avoid him? That didn't matter. Her body was about to need something only he could provide her. So sooner or later she would come around. Or she would die.

    He thought of the soft skin of her neck. Felt the sensation of his tongue stroking over the vein that ran up from her heart.

    His fangs elongated as if she were before him. As if he could sink his teeth into her and drink.

    Wrath closed his eyes as his body began to shake. His stomach, full with food, turned into a bottomless, achy pit.

    He tried to remember the last time he'd fed. It has been a while, but surely not that long ago?

    He forced himself to calm down. Get control. It was like trying to slow down a train with a hand brake, but eventually a cooling stream of sanity replaced the whacked-out, blood-lust spins.

    As he came back to reality he felt uneasy, his instincts crying out for airtime.

    That female was dangerous to him. If she could affect him like this without even being in the damn room, she might just be his pyrocant...

    Praise for Dark Lover

    "An awesome, instantly addictive debut novel. It's a midnight whirlwind of dangerous characters and mesmerizing erotic romance. The Black Dagger Brotherhood owns me now. Dark fantasy lovers, you just got served."

    ¡ªLynn Viehl, author of If Angels Burn

    "J. R. Ward has created a wonderful cast of characters, with a sexy, tormented, to-die-for hero and the spirited woman who proves his soul mate. What a fabulous treat for romance readers!"

    ¡ªNicole Jordan, New York Times bestselling author of Wicked Fantasy

    Acknowledgments

    Thank you so very much: Karen Solem, Kara Cesare, Claire Zion, Kara Welsh, Rose Hilliard.

    To my Executive Committee: Sue Grafton, Dr. Jessica Andersen, Betsey Vaughan. Burning up the Internet, the phone lines, and the Hutchins and Seneca Park ring-arounds with you has kept me focused, sane, and smiling.

    With love to my family.

    Darius looked around the club, taking in the teeming, half-naked bodies on the dance floor. Screamer's was packed tonight, full of women wearing leather and men who looked like they had advanced degrees in violent crime.

    Darius and his companion fit right in.

    Except they actually were killers.

    "So you're really going to do this?" Tohrment asked him.

    Darius glanced across the shallow table. The other vampire's eyes met his own. "Yeah. I am."

    Tohrment nursed his Scotch and smiled grimly. Only the very tips of his fangs showed. "You're crazy, D."

    "You should know."

    Tohrment tilted his glass in deference. "But you're raising the bar. You want to take an innocent girl, who has no idea what the hell she's getting into, and put her transition in the hands of someone like Wrath. That's whacked."

    "He isn't evil. In spite of the way he looks." Darius finished his beer. "And show a little respect."

    "I respect the hell out of him. But it's a bad idea."

    "I need him."

    "You sure about that?"

    A woman wearing a micromini, thigh-high boots, and a bustier made of chains trolled by their table. Her eyes glittered from behind two pounds of mascara, and she worked her walk as if her hips were double-jointed.

    Darius gave her a pass. Sex was not on his mind tonight.

    "She's my daughter, Tohr."

    "She's a half-breed, D. And you know how he feels about humans." Tohrment shook his head. "My great-great-grandmother was one, and you don't see me yakking that up around him."

    Darius lifted his hand to catch their waitress's eye and pointed at his empty bottle and Tohrment's nearly dry glass. "I'm not going to let another one of my children die. Not if there's a possibility I can save her. And anyway, there's no telling whether she'll even go through the change. She could end up living a happy life, never knowing about my side. It's happened before."

    And he hoped his daughter would be spared. Because if she went through her transition, if she came out alive on the other side as a vampire, she was going to be hunted as they all were.

    "Darius, if he does it at all, he'll do it because he owes you. Not because he wants to."

    "I'll take him any way I can get him."

    "But what are you giving her? He's about as nurturing as a sawed-off, and that first time can be rough, even if you've been prepared. Which she hasn't."

    "I'm going to talk to her."

    "And how's that going to go? You're just going to walk up to her and say, 'Hey, I know you've never seen me before, but I'm your dad. Oh, and guess what? You've won the evolutionary lottery: You're a vampire. Let's go to Disneyland!' "

    "I hate you right now."

    Tohrment leaned forward, his thick shoulders shifting under black leather. "You know I got your back. I'm just thinking you should reconsider." There was a heavy pause. "Maybe I could do it."

    Darius shot him a dry look. "You want to try and get back into your house after the fact? Wellsie will stake you through the heart and leave you for the sun, my friend."

    Tohrment winced. "Good point."

    "And then she'll come looking for me."

    Both males shuddered.

    "Besides..." Darius leaned back as the waitress put their drinks down. He waited until she left, even though hard-core rap was pumping all around them. "Besides, we're living in dangerous times. If something happens to me¡ª"

    "I'll take care of her."

    Darius clapped his friend on the shoulder. "I know you will."

    "But Wrath is better." There was no jealousy in the remark. It was a statement of fact.

    "There's no one like him."

    "And thank God for that," Tohrment said with a half smile.

    Their band of brothers, a tight circle of strong-backed warriors who traded information and fought together, were of the same opinion. Wrath was off the chain when it came to the business of vengeance, and he hunted their enemies with a single-minded purpose that bordered on the insane. He was the last of his line, the only purebred vampire left on the planet, and though his race revered him as its king, he despised his status.

    It was almost tragic that he was the best bet Darius's half-breed daughter had of surviving. Wrath's blood, so strong, so untainted, would increase the chances of her getting through the transition if it hit her. But Tohrment wasn't off the mark. It was like turning a virgin over to a thug.

    With a sudden rush, the crowd shifted, people backing into each other. They were making way for someone. Or something.

    "Shit. Here he comes," Tohrment muttered. He tossed back his Scotch, swallowing it whole. "No offense, but I'm outtie. This is not a conversation I need to be a part of."

    Darius watched the sea of humans split as they steered clear of an imposing, dark shadow that towered over them. The flight response was a good survival reflex.

    Wrath was six feet, six inches of pure terror dressed in leather. His hair was long and black, falling straight from a widow's peak. Wraparound sunglasses hid eyes that no one had ever seen revealed. Shoulders were twice the size of most males'. With a face that was both aristocratic and brutal, he looked like the king he was by birthright and the soldier he'd become by destiny.

    And that wave of menace rolling ahead of him was one hell of a calling card.

    As the cool air hit Darius, he tilted his fresh beer back and drank deeply.

    He hoped to God he was doing the right thing.

    Beth Randall looked up as her editor leaned his hip on her desk. His eyes went straight to the vee of her shirt.

    "Working late again," he murmured.

    "Hey, Dick."

    Shouldn't you be getting home to your wife and two kids? she mentally added.

    "What are you doing?"

    "Editing a piece for Tony."

    "You know, there are other ways of impressing me."

    Yeah, she could just imagine.

    "Did you read my e-mail, Dick? I went down to the police station this afternoon and talked with Jos¨¦ and Ricky. They swear a gun dealer's moved into town. They've found two modified Magnums on drug dealers."

    Dick reached out to pat her shoulder, stroking it as he took his hand back. "You just keep working the blotter. Let the big boys worry about the violent crimes. We wouldn't want anything to happen to that pretty face of yours."

    He smiled, eyes growing hooded as his gaze lingered on her lips.

    That stare routine had gotten old three years ago, she thought. Right after she'd started working for him.

    A paper bag. What she needed was a paper bag to pull over her head whenever she talked with him. Maybe with a picture of Mrs. Dick taped to the front.

    "Would you like me to give you a ride home?" he asked.

    Only if it were raining thumbtacks and hairpins, you letch.

    "No, thanks." Beth turned back to her computer screen and hoped he'd take the hint.

    Eventually he wandered off, probably heading for the bar across the street that most of the reporters hit before going home. Caldwell, New York, wasn't exactly a hotbed of opportunity for any journalist, but Dick's big boys sure liked keeping up the appearance of carrying a heavy social burden. They relished cozying up to the bar at Charlie's and talking about the days when they'd worked at bigger, more important papers. For the most part they were just like Dick: middle-aged, middle-of-the-road men who were competent, but not extraordinary at what they did. Caldwell was big enough and close enough to New York City to have the nasty business of violent crimes, drug busts, and prostitution, so they were kept busy. But the Caldwell Courier Journal was not the Times, and none of them was ever going to win a Pulitzer.

    It was rather sad.

    Yeah, well, look in the mirror, Beth thought. She was just a beat reporter. She'd never even worked at a national-level paper. So when she was in her fifties, unless things changed, she'd have to be at a free press polishing classifieds to have a shot at reflected glory from her CCJ days.

    She reached for the bag of M&M's she'd been nursing. The damn thing was empty. Again.

    She should probably just go home. And pick up some Chinese down the street.

    On her way out of the newsroom, which was an open space cut up into cubicles by flimsy gray partitions, she hit her buddy Tony's stash of Twinkies. Tony ate all the time. For him, there was no breakfast, lunch, and dinner: Consumption was a binary proposition. If he was awake, something was going into his mouth, and to keep himself supplied, his desk was a treasure trove of caloric depravity.

    She peeled off the cellophane and couldn't believe she was biting into the artificial swill as she hit the lights and walked down the stairwell to Trade Street. Outside, the heat of July was a physical barrier between her and her apartment. Twelve straight blocks of hot and humid. Fortunately, the Chinese restaurant was halfway home and heavily air-conditioned. With any luck they'd be busy tonight, so she'd get to wait a while in the coolness.

    When she was finished with the Twinkie, she flipped open her phone, hit speed dial, and put in an order for beef with broccoli. As she walked along, she looked at the familiar, grim landmarks. Along this stretch of Trade Street, there were only bars, strip clubs, and the occasional tattoo parlor. The Chinese food place and the Tex-Mex buffet were the only two restaurants. The rest of the buildings, which had been used as offices in the twenties, when downtown had been thriving, were vacant. She knew every crack in the sidewalk; she could time the traffic lights. And the patois of sounds drifting out of open doors and windows offered no surprises either.

    McGrider's Bar was playing blues; Zero Sum had bleating techno coming out of its glass entrance; and the karaoke machines were fired up at Ruben's. Most of the places were reputable enough, but there were a couple she stayed away from on principle. Screamer's in particular catered to a scary-ass clientele. That was one door she wouldn't go through without a police escort.

    As she measured the distance to the Chinese restaurant, a wave of fatigue hit her. God, it was humid. The air was so heavy she felt as if she were breathing water.

    She had a feeling the exhaustion wasn't just about the weather. She'd been pooped for weeks, and suspected she was dancing with depression. Her job was going nowhere. She was living in a place she didn't care about. She had few friends, no lover, and no romantic prospects. If she looked ahead ten years and pictured herself staying put in Caldwell with Dick and the big boys, she only saw more of the same routine: getting up, going to work, trying to make a difference, failing, going home alone.

    Maybe she just needed out. Out of Caldwell. Out of the CCJ. Out of the electronic family of her alarm clock and the phone on her desk and the TV that kept her dreams away while she slept.

    God knew there was nothing keeping her in town but habit. She hadn't spoken to any of her foster parents for years, so they wouldn't miss her. And the few friends she had were busy with their own families.

    When she heard a leering whistle behind her, she rolled her eyes. That was the problem with working near the bars. On occasion you picked up gawkers.

    The catcalls came next, and then, sure enough, two guys crossed the street at a jog and came after her. She looked around. She was heading away from the bars and into the long stretch of vacant buildings before the restaurants. The night was thick and dark, but at least there were streetlights and the occasional car passing.

    "I like your black hair," the big one said as he fell into step beside her. "Mind if I touch it?"

    Beth knew better than to stop. They looked like college frat boys out for the summer, which meant they were just going to be annoying, but she didn't want to take any chances. Besides, the Chinese place was only five blocks up.

    She reached into her purse anyway, searching for her pepper spray.

    "You need a ride somewhere?" the big guy asked. "My car's not far. Seriously, how 'bout you come with us? We could go for a little ride."

    He grinned and winked at his buddy, as if the smooth rap was definitely going to get him laid. The crony laughed and circled her, his thin blond hair flopping as he skipped.

    "Let's ride her!" the blond said.

    Damn it, where was her spray?

    The big one reached out, touching her hair, and she looked at him good and hard. With his polo shirt and his khaki shorts, he was BMOC handsome. Real all-American material.

    When he smiled at her, she sped up, focusing on the dim neon glow of the Chinese place's sign. She was praying someone else would walk by, but heat had driven the pedestrian traffic indoors. There was no one around.

    "You want to tell me your name?" all-American asked.

    Her heart started banging in her chest. The spray was in her other bag.

    Four more blocks.

    "Maybe I'll just pick a name for you. Let me think... How's pussycat sound?"

    The blond giggled.

    She swallowed and took out her cell phone, just in case she needed to call 911.

    Stay calm. Keep it together.

    She pictured how good the rush of air-conditioning in the restaurant was going to feel as she went inside. Maybe she'd wait and call a cab, just to make sure she got home without being further harassed by them.

    "Come on, pussycat," All-American cooed. "I know you're going to like me."

    Only three more blocks...

    Just as she stepped off the curb to cross Tenth Street, he grabbed her around the waist. Her feet popped off the ground, and as he dragged her backward, he covered her mouth with a heavy palm. She fought like a madwoman, kicking and punching, and when she reached behind and belted him in the eye, his grip slipped. She lunged away from him, legs driving her heels hard into the pavement, breath trapped in her throat. A car went by out on Trade Street, and she yelled as its headlights flared.

    But then he got her again.

    "You're going to beg for it, bitch," all-American said in her ear as he put her in a choke hold. He wrenched her neck around until she thought it was going to snap and pulled her deeper into the shadows. She could smell his sweat and the college-boy cologne he wore, could hear the high-pitched laughter of his friend.

    An alley. They were taking her into an alley.

    Her stomach heaved, bile stinging her throat, and she jerked her body around furiously, trying to get free. Panic made her strong. But he was stronger.

    He pushed her behind a Dumpster and pressed his body into hers. She drove her elbow into his ribs and kicked some more.

    "Goddamn it, get her arms!"

    She got in one good heel punch to the blond's shins before he caught her wrists and held them over her head.

    "Come on, bitch, you're going to like this," all-American growled, trying to get his knee between her legs.

    He ground her back against the building's brick wall, holding her in place by the throat. He had to use his other hand to rip open her shirt, and as soon as her mouth was free, she screamed. He slapped her hard, and she felt her lip split open. Blood rushed onto her tongue, pain stunning her.

    "You do that again and I'm cutting your tongue out." All-American's eyes boiled with hate and lust as he shoved up the white lace of her bra and exposed her breasts. "Hell, I think I'll do that anyway."

    "Hey, are those real?" the blond asked, as if she would answer him.

    His buddy grabbed one of her nipples and pulled. She winced, tears making her vision swim. Or maybe her eyesight was going because she was hyperventilating.

    All-American laughed. "I think she's natural. But you can find out for yourself when I'm finished."

    As the blond giggled, some deep part of her brain kicked into gear and refused to let this happen. She forced herself to stop fighting and reached back to her self-defense training. Except for her heavy breathing, her body went still, and it took all-American a minute to notice.

    "You want to play nice?" he said, eyeing her with suspicion.

    She nodded slowly.

    "Good." He leaned in, his breath filling her nose. She fought not to cringe at the rank smell of stale cigarettes and beer. "But if you scream again, I'm going to stab you. Do you understand me?"

    She nodded once more.

    "Let her go."

    The blond dropped her wrists and giggled, moving around them as if he were looking for the best angle.

    All-American's hands were rough on her skin as he fondled her, and she held Tony's Twinkie down by force of will, her gag reflex pumping her throat. Even though she loathed the sensation of the palms pushing into her breasts, she reached for the fly of his pants. He was still holding her by the neck, and she was having trouble breathing, but the moment she touched his privates, he moaned and his grip loosened.

    With a hard jam of her hand, she grabbed his balls, twisted as hard as she could, and kneed him in the nose as he crumbled. Adrenaline shot through her, and for a split second she wished his buddy would come at her instead of staring at her stupidly.

    "Fuck you!" she screamed at them both.

    Beth bolted out of the alley, holding her shirt together as she ran, and she didn't stop until she was at the door to her apartment building. Her hands were shaking so badly she could barely get her key in the locks. And it wasn't until she stood in front of her mirror in the bathroom that she realized tears were pouring down her face.

    Butch O'Neal looked up when the police radio under the dash of his unmarked patrol car went off. There was a male victim, down but breathing, in an alley not so far away.

    Butch checked his watch. A little after ten o'clock, which meant the fun was just getting started. It was a Friday night in the early part of July, so the college turks were still fresh out of school and aching to compete in the Stupid Olympics. He figured the guy had either been mugged or taught a lesson.

    He hoped it was the latter.

    Butch grabbed the handset and told Dispatch he'd head over even though he was a homicide detective, not a beat cop. He had two cases he was working right now, one floater in the Hudson River and a hit-and-run, but there was always room for something else. As far as he was concerned, the more time away from home, the better. The dirty dishes in his sink and the wrinkled sheets on his bed were not going to miss him.

    He hit the siren and the gas and thought, Let's hear it for the boys of summer.

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