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#1 New York Times bestseller Charlaine Harris was born in Mississippi and lives in southern Arkansas with her husband, daughter and three dogs. Their sons are out of the nest. She’s written four series and two stand-alone novels in addition to numerous short stories and a novella or two. Her Sookie Stackhouse books have appeared in twenty-five different languages and on many best-seller lists. They’re also the basis of the HBO series “True Blood.”
RITA Award winning, New York Times bestselling author Maggie Shayne has published over 50 novels, including mini-series Wings in the Night (vampires), Secrets of Shadow Falls (suspense) and The Portal (witchcraft). A Wiccan High Priestess, tarot reader, advice columnist and former soap opera writer, Maggie lives in Cortland County, NY, with soulmate Lance and their furry family. --This text refers to an alternate Mass Market Paperback edition.
Rue paused to gather herself before she pushed open the door marked both Blue Moon Entertainment and Black Moon Productions. She'd made sure she'd be right on time for her appointment. Desperation clamped down on her like a vise: she had to get this job, even if the conditions were distasteful. Not only would the money make continuing her university courses possible, the job hours dovetailed with her classes. Okay, head up, chest out, shoulders square, big smile, pretty hands, Rue told herself, as her mother had told her a thousand times.
There were two mentwo vampires, she corrected herselfone dark, one red-haired, and a woman, a regular human woman, waiting for her. In the corner, at a barre, a girl with short blond hair was stretching. The girl might be eighteen, three years younger than Rue.
The older woman was hard-faced, expensively dressed, perhaps forty. Her pantsuit had cost more than three of Rue's outfits, at least the ones that she wore to classes every day. She thought of those outfits as costumes: old jeans and loose shirts bought at the thrift store, sneakers or hiking boots and big glasses with a very weak prescription. She was concealed in such an ensemble at this moment, and Rue realized from the woman's face that her appearance was an unpleasant surprise.
"You must be Rue?" the older woman asked.
Rue nodded, extended her hand. "Rue May. Pleased to meet you." Two lies in a row. It was getting to be second natureor even (and this was what scared her most) first nature.
"I'm Sylvia Dayton. I own Blue Moon Entertainment and Black Moon Productions." She shook Rue's hand in a firm, brisk way.
"Thank you for agreeing to see me dance." Rue crammed her apprehension into a corner of her mind and smiled confidently. She'd endured the judgments of strangers countless times. "Where do I change?" She let her gaze skip right over the vampiresher potential partners, she guessed. At least they were both taller than her own five foot eight. In the hasty bit of research she'd done, she'd read that vampires didn't like to shake hands, so she didn't offer. Surely she was being rude in not even acknowledging their presence? But Sylvia hadn't introduced them.
"In there." There were some louver-doored enclosures on one side of the room, much like changing rooms in a department store. Rue entered a cubicle. It was easy to slide out of the oversize clothes and the battered lace-up boots, a real pleasure to pull on black tights, a deep plum leotard and fluttering wrap skirt to give the illusion of a dress while she danced. She sat on a stool to put on T-strap heels, called character shoes, then stood to smile experimentally at her reflection in the mirror. Head up, chest out, shoulders square, big smile, pretty hands, she repeated silently. Rue took the clip out of her hair and brushed it until it fell in a heavy curtain past her shoulder blades. Her hair was one of her best features. It was a deep, rich brown with an undertone of auburn. The color almost matched that of her deep-set, dramatic eyes.
Rue only needed her glasses to clarify writing on the blackboard, so she popped them into their case and slipped it into her backpack. She leaned close to the mirror to inspect her makeup. After years of staring into her mirror with the confidence of a beautiful girl, she now examined her face with the uncertainty of a battered woman. There were pictures in a file at her lawyer's office, pictures of her face bruised and puffy. Her nosewell, it looked fine now.
The plastic surgeon had done a great job.
So had the dentist.
Her smile faltered, dimmed. She straightened her back again. She couldn't afford to think about that now. It was show time. She folded back the door and stepped out.
There was a moment of silence as the four in the room took in Rue's transformation. The darker vampire looked gratified; the red-haired one's expression didn't change. That pleased Rue.
"You were fooling us," Sylvia said. She had a deep, raspy voice. "You were in disguise." I'd better remember that Sylvia Dayton is perceptive, Rue told herself. "Well, let's try you on the dance floor, since you definitely pass in the looks department. By the way, it's Blue Moon you want to try out for, right? Not Black Moon? You could do very well in a short time with Black Moon, with your face and body."
It was Blue Moon's ad she'd answered. "Dancer wanted, must work with vamps, have experience, social skills," the ad had read. "Salary plus tips."
"What's the difference?" Rue asked.
"Black Moon, well, you have to be willing to have sex in public."
Rue couldn't remember the last time she'd been shocked, but she was shocked now. "No!" she said, trying not to sound as horrified as she felt. "And if this tryout has anything to do with removing my clothes "
"No, Blue Moon Entertainment is strictly for dancing," Sylvia said. She was calm about it. "As the ad said, you team with a vampire. That's what the people want these days. Whatever kind of dancing the party calls forwaltzing, hip-hop. The tango is very popular. People just want a dance team to form the centerpiece for their evening, get the party started. They like the vamp to bite the girl at the end of the exhibition dance."
She'd known that; it had been in the ad, too. All the material she'd read had told her it didn't hurt badly, and the loss of a sip of blood wouldn't affect her. She'd been hurt worse.
"After you dance as a team, often you're required to stay for an hour, dancing with the guests," Sylvia was saying. "Then you go home. They pay me a fee. I pay you. Sometimes you get tips. If you agree to anything on the side and I hear about it, you're fired." It took Rue a minute to understand what Sylvia meant, and her mouth compressed. Sylvia continued. "Pretty much the same arrangement applies for Black Moon, but the entertainment is different, and the pay is higher. We're thinking of adding vampire jugglers and a vampire magicianhe'll need a 'Beautiful Assistant.'"
It steadied Rue somehow when she realized that Sylvia was simply being matter-of-fact. Sex performer, magician's assistant or dancer, Sylvia didn't care.
"Blue Moon," Rue said firmly.
"Blue Moon it is," Sylvia said.
The blond girl drifted over to stand by Sylvia. She had small hazel eyes and a full mouth that was meant to smile. She wasn't smiling now.
While Sylvia searched through a stack of CD cases, the blonde stepped up to Rue's side. She whispered, "Don't look directly in their eyes. They can snag you that way, if they want to, turn your will to their wishes. Don't worry unless their fangs run all the way out. They're excited then."
Startled, Rue used her lowest voice to say, "Thanks!" But now she was even more nervous, and she had to wonder if perhaps that hadn't been the girl's intention.
Having picked a CD, Sylvia tapped the arm of one of the vampires. "Thompson, you first."
The dark-haired taller vampire, who was wearing biking shorts and a ragged, sleeveless T-shirt, came to stand in front of Rue. He was very handsome, very exotic, with golden skin and smooth short hair. Rue guessed he was of Eurasian heritage; there was a hint of a slant to his dark eyes. He smiled down at her. But there was something in his look she didn't trust, and she always paid attention to that feeling at least, now she did. After a quick scan of his face, she kept her eyes focused on his collarbone.
Rue had never touched a vampire. Where she came from, a smallish town in Tennessee, you never saw anything so exotic. If you wanted to see a vampire (just like if you wanted to go to the zoo), you had to visit the city. The idea of touching a dead person made Rue queasy. She would have been happy to turn on her heel and walk right out of the room, but that option wasn't open. Her savings had run out. Her rent was due. Her phone bill was imminent. She had no insurance.
She heard her mother's voice in her head, reminding her, "Put some steel in that spine, honey." Good advice. Too bad her mother hadn't followed it herself.
Sylvia popped the disk in the CD player, and Rue put one hand on Thompson's shoulder, extended the other in his grasp. His hands were cool and dry. This partner would never have sweaty palms. She tried to suppress her shiver. You don't have to like a guy to dance with him, she advised herself. The music was an almost generic dance tune. They began with a simple two-step, then a box step. The music accelerated into swing, progressed to jitterbug.
Rue found she could almost forget her partner was a vampire. Thompson could really dance. And he was so strong! He could lift her with ease, swing her, toss her over his head, roll her across his back. She felt light as a feather. But she hadn't mistaken the gleam in his eyes. Even while they were dancing, his hands traveled over more of her body than they should. She'd had enough experience with menmore than enough experienceto predict the way their partnership would go, if it began like this.
The music came to an end. He watched her chest move up and down from the exercise. He wasn't even winded. Of course, she reminded herself, Thompson didn't need to breathe. The vampire bowed to Rue, his eyes dancing over her body. "A pleasure," he said. To her surprise, his voice purely American.
She nodded back.
"Excellent," Sylvia said. "You two look good together. Thompson, Julie, you can go now, if you want." The blonde and Thompson didn't seem to want. They both sat down on the floor, backs to one of the huge mirrors that lined the room. "Now dance with Sean O'Rourke, our Irish aristocrat," Sylvia told her. "He needs a new partner, too." Rue must have looked anxious, because the older woman laughed and said, "Sean's partner got engaged and left the city. Thompson's finished med school and started her residency. Sean?"
The second vampire stepped forward, and Rue realized he hadn't moved the whole time she'd been dancing with Thompson. Now he gave Sylvia a frigid nod and examined Rue as closely as she was examining him.
Dust could have settled on Sean, he stood so still. He was shorter than Thompson, but still perhaps two inches taller than Rue, and his long straight hair, tied back at the nape of his neck, was bright red. Of course, Sean was white, white as paper; Thompson's racial heritage, his naturally golden skin, had made him look a little more alive.
The Irish vampire's mouth was like a capital M. The graven downturns made him look a little spoiled, a little petulant, but it was just the way his mouth was made. She wondered what he would look like if he ever smiled. Sean's eyes were blue and clear, and he had a dusting of freckles across his sharp nose. A vampire with freckles that made Rue want to laugh. She ducked her head to hide her smile as he took his stance in front of her.
"I am amusing?" he asked, so softly she was sure the other three couldn't hear.
"Not at all," she said, but she couldn't suppress her smile.
"Have you ever talked to a vampire?"
"No. Oh, wait, yes, I have. A beauty contest I was in, I think maybe Miss Rockland Valley? He was one of the judges."
Of all the ways Sean the vampire could have responded, he said, "Did you win?"
She raised her eyes and looked directly into his. He could not have looked more bored and indifferent. It was strangely reassuring. "I did," she said.
She remembered the vampire judge's sardonic smile when she'd told him her "platform" was governmental tolerance toward supernatural creatures. And yet she'd never met a supernatural creature until that moment! What a naive twit she'd been. But her mother had thought such a topic very current and sure to attract the judges' attention. National and state governments had been struggling to regulate human-vampire relationships since vampires had announced their existence among humans five years before.
The Japanese development of a synthetic blood that could satisfy the nutritional needs of the undead had made such a revelation possible, and in the past five years, vampires had worked their way into the mainstream of society in a few countries. But Rue, despite her platform, had steered clear of contact with the undead. Her life was troublesome enough without adding an element as volatile as the undead to the mix.
"I just don't know much about vampires," she said apologetically.
Sean's crystalline blue eyes looked at her quite impersonally. "Then you will learn," he said calmly. He had a slight Irish accent; "learn" came out suspiciously like "lairrn."
She focused safely on his pointed chin. She felt more at easeeven if he was some kind of royalty, according to Sylvia. He seemed totally indifferent to her looks. That, in itself, was enough to relax her muscles.
"Will you dance?" he asked formally.
"Yes, thank you," she said automatically. Sylvia started the CD player again. She'd picked a different disk this time.
They waltzed first, moving so smoothly that Rue felt she was gliding across the floor without her feet touching the wood. "Swing next," he murmured, and her feet did truly leave the floor, her black skirt fluttering out in an arc, and then she was down again and dancing.
Rue enjoyed herself more than she had in years.
When it was over, when she saw that his eyes were still cool and impersonal, it was easy to turn to Sylvia and say, "If you decide you want me to work for you, I'd like to dance with Sean."
The flash of petulance on Thompson's face startled Rue.
Sylvia looked a bit surprised, but not displeased. "Great," she said. "It's not always easy " Then she stopped, realizing any way she finished the sentence might be tactless.
Julie was beaming. "Then I'll dance with Thompson," she said. "I need a partner, too."
At least I made Julie happy, Rue thought. Rue's own partner-to-be didn't comment. Sean looked neither happy nor sad. He took her hand, bowed over it and let it go. She thought she had felt cold lips touch her fingers, and she shivered.
"Here's the drill," Sylvia said briskly. "Here's a contract for you to sign. Take it home with you and read it. It's really simple." She handed Rue a one-page document. "You can have your lawyer check it over, if you want."
Rue couldn't afford that, but she nodded, hoping her face didn't reflect her thoughts. --This text refers to an alternate Mass Market Paperback edition.