Feeling more like an errant schoolgirl than the lady of the house, Isabella Ruiz paused outside her father's office. It didn't matter that she was twenty-seven years old and director of a multi-million dollar foundation. Her father continually thought of, and treated her like, a child.
She smoothed down her narrow skirt and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear before announcing her presence with a firm knock.
"It's open." Though muffled, her father's voice was easily recognizable.
She pushed the door open and stepped into the book-lined room. "You sent for me?" A touch of annoyance revealed her impatience. She had too much to do to indulge her father's need to run her life.
"Actually, I requested your presence." Like the welcome caress of a steamy shower, an unfamiliar voice flowed across her senses.
She turned and looked at the speaker, expecting someone as dark and sensual as his voice. Nearly black and filled with secrets, his thick-lashed eyes were the only feature that fulfilled her expectations. His hair was blond, short on the sides, yet longer on top, with a tendency to spill across his forehead. She wanted to push her fingers through those wayward strands, removing the distraction from his sculpted features. With his muscular build and light complexion, the stranger looked more Viking than Valentino.
He pushed to his feet and held out his hand. "Steffen Ziegler." Dressed in jeans and a pullover shirt, he was worlds apart from the staid executives who usually visited her father.
"If you asked to see me, I presume you know my name." His long, cool fingers enfolded her hand and awareness rushed across her nerve endings. Her heartbeat staggered then raced, unable to find a steady rhythm. She inhaled slowly and licked her lips.
His gaze focused on her mouth and those night black eyes began to smolder. "I know many things, Ms. Ruiz. I just hope you're willing to benefit from my experience."
Her brow arched at his arrogance. "Is there a particular subject in which you wish to enlighten me, or shall I just bask in your august presence?"
"Bella." Her father's tone snapped with warning, but Steffen smiled.
"Your father told me you can be... challenging. Why don't you have a seat and I'll explain why I'm here?"
Unusually aware of her every movement, she slipped into one of the two chairs situated in front of the mahogany desk. She crossed her legs and took a deep breath, amazed that her father would allow anyone else to dominate a conversation. It wasn't like Hector Ruiz to accept a passive role in any situation.
Steffen moved to one side of the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. She could see both men without turning her head, which was likely the reason he'd chosen the position. The odd awareness lingered, subdued by the lack of physical contact, but undeniably there.
"Do you know the Burton family?" Steffen began.
"I know of them." She shot her father a confounded glance, wishing she could send her thoughts as pureblood Dichotomy could. Who was this guy? How much did he know about their people?
Easily interpreting her expression, her father said, "Steffen knows about the Dichotomy. You may speak freely."
She turned back to the handsome inquisitor. "Have the Burtons acted inappropriately? What do they have to do with me?"
"The Burtons are in the middle of a blood feud with the Nicholsons."
"The Burtons would object to that characterization," her father said. "The Nicholsons have been fugitives for years. The Burtons have simply been the focus of their hostilities."
"We have reason to believe their focus has expanded to include the entire council."
Bella tried not to reveal her impatience. "Father employs a fulltime security staff. Threats against the council are nothing new."
"And will this fulltime security staff be able to protect you from beings who can instantaneously appear and also penetrate your mental shielding?"
"The Nicholsons have no such abilities."
Steffen unfolded his arms and took a step toward her. "The Nicholsons are no longer your primary concern. If I'm not mistaken, Valerie is the only one still on the loose."
"She is," Hector confirmed. "Now stop sparring with Bella and get to the point."
"Valerie has formed an alliance with a vampire named Taerok."
"A vampire?" She looked back at her father, but his features remained expressionless. "Vampires are even more xenophobic than we are. Why would a vampire align himself with an obscure Dichotomy?"
"A very good question." Hector rested his hands on the desktop and gazed at Steffen expectantly.
"We're not sure about Taerok's motivation, but they're definitely working together."
"Or at least they were three weeks ago," Hector said. "There have been no new attacks in all that time. Isn't it possible the vampire was hired for that one occasion?"
"Possible, but not likely."
The Dichotomy could sense each other. Even a halfling like Bella recognized the unique energy pattern of her father's people. Steffen wasn't a Dichotomy. In fact, she'd never sensed anyone quite like him. Sunlight spilled into the office through the open blinds, so he couldn't be a vampire. Could he?
"How did you become involved in this?" she asked their enigmatic visitor.
"Leos Burton asked for our help identifying the vampire he'd encountered during his latest confrontation with the Nicholsons. It wasn't hard for us to determine who we were dealing with."
"You keep saying 'us' and 'we.' Do you belong to some sort of organization?"
"We're rather like human special forces, discreet, yet merciless. We're not the sort of team you contact if you're looking for diplomacy."
The answer was vague at best, so she made her question more specific. "Are you a vampire or a vampire hunter?"
"My species is irrelevant to this conversation. Taerok has developed an interest in the Dichotomy, and Valerie Nicholson is making sure he focuses that interest on people with a connection to the council. Are you such a person?"
"You know I am."
"I've left detailed instructions with your father. I recommend you follow them to the letter."
"What sort of instructions?"
"The sort that will keep you alive. As of right now, there has been no collateral damage. I'd like to keep it that way."
"May I see these instructions?" Her father handed her a single sheet of paper as his gaze darted toward Steffen. The first few suggestions were common sense, and precautions she already followed. The third stipulation made her laugh. "Do not leave the residence after dark? Is this a joke? The autumn benefit is next weekend."
"Impossible," she mimicked his rigid tone. "The Serenity Foundation generates sixty percent of their funding at these events."
"Get someone else to --"
"No. I have private security agents who accompany me whenever I interact with the public. The foundation's work is too important to compromise because of the possibility of a threat."
Steffen turned to Hector and said, "I need to speak with Ms. Ruiz privately."
Expecting an adamant refusal, Bella's jaw dropped when her father inclined his head and rolled back from his desk.
"There is nothing you can say that will change my mind." Her heart thudded faster with each step her father took toward the door. She shot to her feet, meaning to follow him from the office.
With blinding speed and inhuman agility, Steffen grasped her upper arms and spun her around. She gasped and tugged against his hold. The desk pressed against the back of her thighs and his big body loomed in front of her, abolishing her momentary hope of escape. His fingers banded her flesh, the unyielding pressure stopping just short of pain.
At close range his appeal was even more disconcerting. She couldn't decide if she wanted to wrap herself around him, abandoning reality to the passion promised in his night black eyes, or use her last ounce of strength to shove him away. No one touched her so aggressively. So why was her body melting, warming, pulsing...
"How much do you know about vampires?" Mockery threaded through his whisper soft question and amber sparks ignited within the depths of his gaze.
Mesmerized by the masculine beauty of his features, she scrambled for a coherent reply. "I know they're real, and I know they foster misinformation to increase their mystique."
One tawny brow arched. "You feel their mystique is unwarranted?" His gaze bore into hers for a long, tense moment, then he took her by the waist and lifted her to the desktop. Setting her well back from the edge, he then slid her toward him, effectively pulling up her skirt in the process. His knees nudged hers apart and his hands shifted to her hips.
The position insinuated intimacy without actually touching her sexually. It didn't matter. Lust and uncertainty twisted within her. Her core ached and her nipples tingled, while warnings chimed within her mind. Why was he... Why was she letting him?
"Back off!" She finally shoved against his chest and glared into his eyes.
"I can smell your arousal, little hellion, and hear the frantic beating of your heart." He brushed his knuckles across her flushed cheek. "You're excited by danger."
"I'm excited by roller coasters, too. So what? This means nothing!"
He ignored her resistance and brought his face within inches of hers. "Most vampires would interpret your reaction as an invitation. They'd seduce your senses and erode your defenses, until you freely offered your body and your blood." He grabbed her hair and pulled her head back, exposing her throat.
Fear surged through her building desire. She twisted and screamed, renewing her struggles. Unmoved by her efforts, he pressed his mouth against her skin and wrapped his arms around her torso. She couldn't move, could barely breathe.
His scent muddled her thinking, blurred the horror of what he was about to do. She waited for the first prick of his fangs, the burning pain as he savaged her flesh. Had he bitten her father? Was that why Hector obeyed so mindlessly?
"Feel me." His voice flowed through her, leeching the strength from her body as his smoky presence swirled into her mind. He caressed her back, pressing her against his chest and the apex of his thighs. His lips slid across her skin, his teeth lightly scraping. Sensations tumbled through her abdomen and gathered between her thighs, focusing her attention on the hardness of his cock gently rocking against her feminine center.
She trembled, aware of her unnatural surrender, yet unable to move.
Watch. Despite his command -- or perhaps because of it -- her eyelids drooped, blocking out reality. Know the pleasure of my touch.
Her body remained stiff and helpless within the unyielding circle of his arms. Yet her mind filled with images, tantalizing and vivid, creating sensations indistinguishable from reality. In her mind, she faced the desk and Steffen pressed against her back. His hands moved boldly over her curves, cupping her breasts and exploring her thighs as she braced against the desktop.
He opened her blouse with an impatient yank, sending buttons flying across the room. She gasped and rested her head against his shoulder. Her breasts felt heavy, the nipples so tightly beaded they stung. He drew her bra straps down and teased her through the lacy material.
Take it off. I want nothing between your flesh and mine.
Her image shrugged out of the blouse and quickly discarded the bra. Then she returned her hands to the desk and waited for his touch, his preference, his pleasure. He cupped her breasts, his hands firm and cool against her flesh. His thumbs abraded her nipples, praising her eager response.
He rolled the hardened peaks between his thumb and forefinger, pulling against them with slow, firm pressure. Her soft groan built in the vision, but escaped in reality.
Now the skirt.
Bella shook her head, silently denying her easy acceptance of his demanding touch. Her imaginary self unzipped her skirt and wiggled out of the sturdy material, revealing her black lace panties. How did he know what her underwear looked like? This wasn't possible.
She wore lace-topped stockings and a garter belt, rather than simple nylons. That much was his embellishment. Still, the other garments were as accurate as if he'd watched her dress. The possibility sent a secret thrill through her treacherous body.
He dragged the panties down, yet left them bunched around her knees. I want to bind you, hold you prisoner while I explore every inch of your soft body. I'll touch you and taste you until you scream for release.
Renewed excitement sizzled along her nerve endings. Another image formed within the illusion, the multilayered vision dizzying. She was spread-eagled on a narrow table, bound hand and foot, while Steffen circled her, his ravenous gaze devouring her from every angle.
Yes! her imaginary self gasped. I want that too. Take me. Command me. She arched her back and rubbed her bottom against the blatant ridge of his erection.
He cupped her mound with one hand and banded her waist with the other. His middle finger slid between her folds, moving easily in her cream. He rubbed back and forth, back and forth, dragging his finger over her clit until she trembled in frustration.
Are you ready, love? His teasing fingers circled her opening, focusing her attention on the need pulsing there. Do you want me deep inside you?
Yes. Her response was less certain this time.
Sliding his damp fingers across her thigh, he squeezed her bottom before thrusting his fingers into her pussy from behind. Bella gasped. She could feel the blissful pressure and the tantalizing slide. His thumb sneaked upward, teasing her anus as he drove into her cunt.
"Please stop," she whispered in reality, but her image had other ideas.
In the vision she moved her legs apart, feeling her panties stretch as she struggled to give him more room. Fill me. Fuck me now! She bent over the desk and pushed to the balls of her feet.
If you want my cock, you must accept my fangs.
Scalding desire blasted through the vision. Her image shivered and her physical body clenched, empty and needful. Her imaginary self drew her hair away from her neck, an obvious invitation.
"No!" Bella sobbed. "I wouldn't do that. I don't want..."
His image grasped her hips and accepted her brazen offer. Bella cried out. Her core stretched and rippled. She could feel the pressure as distinctly as if he were really inside her. After three sharp thrusts, he forced her flat against the desk and claimed her neck as well. Pain sliced through her throat, yet pleasure burst within the vision. Sensations swept through her and washed over her, the metaphysical blending with reality. Her passage constricted in powerful spasms and she wrapped her legs around his waist. She shuddered and moaned, clinging to her tormentor in helpless confusion.
He waited for the import of what he'd showed her to register before he spoke. "It's that easy for a vampire to create a blood slave. If I had been Taerok, you would have been robbed of your will and your personality. You would exist only to please and nourish your master."
Shaken and breathless, she brushed her hair out of her eyes and unwound her legs from around his waist. "Then why would they hesitate? Why isn't every human on the planet a blood slave to some vampire?"
"Every time a vampire creates a blood slave or uses any of their abilities indiscriminately they risk exposure." His hands lingered against her shoulders before he regained enough composure to pull away. "Anonymity is essential to their survival."
"You speak of vampires in the abstract." She rubbed her neck, half expecting to find a bite mark marring her skin. "If you're not a vampire, how were you able to create that illusion?" There was no delicate way to phrase it, so she just spit it out. "What are you?"
"We're called Sentinels." Dragging his passion bright gaze away from her mouth, he finally stepped back from the desk. "We investigate situations involving supernatural beings and act according to the laws governing their particular species. My specific physiology is... unique." His expression was carefully guarded, his tone curt and uninformative. "Taerok is our primary concern. Don't allow yourself to be distracted by unimportant details."
She wasn't convinced his unique physiology was unimportant, but she let it go for now. "If Taerok is so powerful, how do we fight him? There has to be a way to keep me safe without turning me into a prisoner."
"The precautions will only be necessary until he's apprehended."
"What are the chances of that happening before next Saturday?" She scooted off the desk and smoothed down her skirt. "I can't cancel the benefit."
His gaze narrowed, but a reluctant smile bowed his lips. "Are you always this stubborn?"
"Always." Refusing to dwell on the vision or the unbelievable sensations still echoing through her body, she took a deep breath and pointed out, "We're expecting around six hundred people. Will he risk an attack with that many witnesses?"
Steffen sighed and his expression turned thoughtful. "I'll talk to my supervisor. See if we can work out a compromise."
"I'd appreciate it." Despite her best effort, she still felt uncomfortably aware of her uninvited guest. "The Serenity Foundation is my life."
"You've made that abundantly clear. Now you need to decide if the Serenity Foundation is worth your life." Without waiting for her reply, he turned and left the room.