You have to be a little crazy to go into arcaneology. The strict definition of the word is the study of secrets, but there’s more to it than that. You’re ferreting out the secrets of other species, supernatural beings far more powerful than humans. Indiana Jones was a lightweight in comparison.

—Professor Anthony Benotti, PhD
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She always chose a neutral meeting place, one that gave her clients no information about who she was or where she might later be found. To them, Angie presented herself as a blank slate. The less they knew, the more they were free to imagine.

“What have you been told about me?” she asked.

Sitting across from her, Steffen Scott thought a moment before answering.

“I understand you have certain specialized skills. You provide your services to only a select clientele. Our mutual acquaintance suggested you might have something to offer me, and that I might meet your standards, if I am fortunate.” His lips curled a bit at one corner. It had been a long time, she suspected, since he had worried about meeting the standards of a human, or anyone at all for that matter.

“I assume you’ve had me vetted. You know I deliver on what I promise.” She smoothed back a strand of light brown hair.

“I am told you are exceptional.”

She nodded to accept the compliment. “James vouches for your ability to remain in control when pushed to the edge. Are you sure that’s what you want? To go to the edge and enjoy something close to the real thing but without the ultimate fulfillment?”

“You mean without killing you.”

“Without overstepping the ground rules we negotiate. Not killing me would be at the top of the list.”

Angie paused to sip the crisp white wine she had ordered while waiting for him to arrive. Her potential client studied her with the affectless expression of one who is very old and rarely surprised by anything human or otherwise. Did he recognize her? This was her greatest fear, that despite all the plastic surgery, despite everything she had changed about herself in the last twelve years, he might see through it and know she was once a girl named Sarah Miller. Of all the vampires with whom she did business, he was the most likely to guess the truth. She almost hadn’t agreed to this meeting, but curiosity had gotten the better of her. This would be the definitive test of her transformation.

A waitress made her way to their table and asked Scott what he wished to order. She looked him over, clearly appreciating what she saw, and Angie couldn’t blame her. Shaggy, bloodred hair framed a face that must have been pale even before he was turned and spilled just past the tops of his broad shoulders. His eyes were blue but so light they were nearly translucent. He responded without giving the woman a glance, and she moved away.

In answer to Angie’s question, he said, “If you can give me something close to what I once knew, then yes. I want it.”

A predatory stare belied his casual tone. Her heart rate sped up a few beats, and she knew there was no hiding it from him. Nor did she wish to. She would not have chosen this line of work if it did not resonate with something deep inside her, and she wanted the vampire to know her response was as real as his. The dance of hunter and hunted would only satisfy him if she was truly engaged in it.

In her peripheral vision, she saw some of the other customers in the bar turn to watch him. They could not hear the conversation—subtle architectural details made the booth nearly soundproof, at least to human ears—so they must have felt the thrill of danger radiating from him. Not everyone looked his way, though.

At a nearby table sat a girl who was surely too young to be in such a place. Angie’s focus shifted to her as a vampire toyed with the top button of the girl’s shirt. Her eyes were glazed, the pupils dilated. Her suitor took her hand, and they rose, moving toward the back hallway. As they passed the booth, Scott made a subtle gesture. The creature froze in his tracks.

“My Lord,” he blurted. “I—”

“Didn’t expect to find me here? It seems my people have neglected this place.”

Scott stood. At more than six and a half feet tall, he towered over the other vampire. To Angie, he murmured, “Take care of the girl.” Then he put a hand on the vampire’s shoulder and walked him out of the lounge. Another vampire rose to follow them. He had the build of a professional wrestler, and he nodded to someone sitting by the front door. Glancing around, Angie discovered another like him, his gaze constantly scanning the room. Interesting. She couldn’t recall Scott having a security detail before, but then she hadn’t seen him in, what, eleven years? Many things could change in that amount of time.

In the silence that fell over the room, they all heard the sound of the back door closing.

Once her charge was in a cab headed home, Angie returned to the booth, where she found Scott wiping his fingers with a cocktail napkin. She glimpsed red smudges before he crumpled it and set it aside. The way he scrutinized the bartender made her shiver. Entrancing a human was the legal equivalent of using a date-rape drug. A business that overlooked such things could cause trouble for the vampire community, trouble the Lord of a province would not tolerate. Governing the entire Puget Sound area meant he had to keep a tight rein over the thousands of vampires living there.

As she slipped into her seat, his attention shifted back to her. His mouth was set in a thin line, and his gaze chilled her. It took an effort of will to maintain her calm expression and posture. The two of them did not speak until his drink had been served, a stemmed balloon glass of blood, heated to human body temperature. Bars such as this, which catered to vampires, kept bottles of it in stock and charged exorbitant rates because the donors were paid well for their services. Its coppery smell drifted across the table to blend with the sweeter scent of white wine. When they were assured of privacy, he said, “Did I pass the test?”

One of her brows quirked upward. “If you’re suggesting that was prearranged, it wasn’t. Though I did watch to see how you responded.”

“And?”

“And I’m still here.” She waited until the anger in his expression faded before she went on. “What else do you need to know, Lord Scott?”

He placed his forearms on the table and leaned in, making her more conscious of his bulk. “I need to know your requirements. And whether I meet them.”

She set aside her glass. “First, the financial details. You have your statement?”

From the back pocket of his jeans he withdrew an envelope and tossed it onto the table. She took out the papers inside and studied them. Then she replaced them in the envelope and returned it. “If you aren’t satisfied, there are no refunds.”

“Has anyone ever asked for one?”

“No.”

She was sure of it, now. He did not recognize her. Angie picked up her wine for another sip.

“What else?” he demanded.

Angie lowered her eyelids a degree and lifted one corner of her mouth. “You meet the next requirement easily enough; there is some chemistry between us. But I doubt you were concerned on that score.”

He smiled, the first real smile she’d seen from him, and gave her a lazy head-to-toe look, taking in the modestly cut skirt and sweater, plain gold jewelry, and hair that hung straight down her back. Like the location of their meeting, her understated appearance gave the client as little information as possible. There was nothing overtly sexual about it, only a sensuality that hinted at the potential for more.

“Not particularly,” he said. “Likewise, I doubt you were concerned about your own appeal, Ms. Devereaux.”

“Please, call me Angeline.”

“Angeline.” He rolled the word through his mouth, as if to explore its shape. She forgot to breathe for a moment. He saw it, and his smile widened. “Very well, Angeline. You may call me Steffen.”

Angie put down her glass and mirrored his posture, resting her forearms on the table and leaning toward him. “Shall we begin negotiations?”

“Let’s.”

His body shifted. A sense of power emanated from him, not supernatural, but rather the charisma and intent of an animal cornering its prey. As though nothing she did would escape him, not the smallest twitch of skin or the faintest stir of breath, and certainly not the way her heart again changed its rhythm.

“First,” she said, “I understand your control has limits. I won’t do anything foolish. No silver. No stakes. But I will try to hurt you. I will not play fair, and I will not hold back, because I’ll be fighting for my life. You will terrify me into mindless instinct. You’ll get a real hunt.”

He went still. “Go on.”

“You may hurt me, as long as you do not leave permanent scars or cause damage that takes more than a few weeks to heal on my own. Using your blood to heal me if you overstep your bounds is not an option. You may mark me anywhere except my face. You may not use entrancement for any reason. If you do, I’ll find out. It always leaves a trace, and I know what to look for.”

She didn’t tell him that she was immune to entrancement. If he learned that, all of the plastic surgery in the world wouldn’t prevent him from realizing who she was. Angie paused, gauging his reaction. He just continued to stare. “I know I’m asking a lot. I offer myself as a victim, and in order to make that real for you, it must be real for me. I will be out of control. It is up to you to remain in control for both of us. To make sure neither of us does serious harm. Do you understand?”

“You play a dangerous game.”

“That is why I am extremely selective. And expensive.” She raised her chin, bringing her lips nearer his. “You may take my mouth or my vagina, but nothing else. Since vampires don’t carry human diseases and cannot get a human pregnant, I do not require condoms. You may torture and feed on me, as long as you stay within the boundaries I have laid out.”

A fine tremor went through him. Steffen clenched his hands into fists, but otherwise did not move. Angie watched until she was satisfied he had his instincts under control.

“Are these conditions acceptable?” she asked softly.

He inclined his head just enough to give his answer.

“Then let’s talk about what you want. I can offer a variety of scenarios, play whatever role you wish. Do you have something in mind?”

Steffen drew back, finally, giving himself some distance from her, and she eased back as well.

“I have an idea,” he said, and told her.