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  • Home > Cynthia Eden > Playing With Fire     

    PROLOGUE

    “Please stop, Daddy. Please!” The little girl twisted and struggled desperately against the thick straps that held her down on the cold, metal table.

    “Now, Cassie, be a good girl and don’t fight.” Her father loomed above her, wearing his white lab coat. He had a mask over his face, and all she could see were his glittering eyes. “This is going to make you stronger. Don’t you want to be stronger?”

    He was going to put the medicine in her again. She could see the needle. It glinted under the bright light. So long and sharp.

    “I-I don’t want to be stronger,” she whispered. She wanted out of that room. Away from him.

    Far, far away.

    “There are monsters in the world, Cassie. We have to stop them.” His voice had hardened. His voice was always hard and cold.

    He looked like a monster. With the light all around him. With the white mask over his face. White gloves on his hands.

    Tears leaked down her cheeks as he pushed the needle into her arm.

    She screamed. It felt like fire was pouring into her veins. Her body started to thrash and jerk on the table.

    He sighed. “That’s why I had to use the straps. I couldn’t have you hurting yourself.”

    Her screams grew louder.

    “Don’t worry. We only have a few more weeks of injections to go.”

    She kept screaming. She couldn’t stop. She was burning. Her head banged against the table. Over and over. Black dots danced before her eyes.

    “Once the transformation is complete, you’ll be our weapon. So perfectly cloaked in a child’s innocence.”

    Her screams stopped. She choked, trying to pull in a breath, but she couldn’t get air. Her gaze flew around the small lab. Her daddy’s lab. He usually made her stay out of the lab. But he’d brought her in today—even when she’d begged to go outside.

    He was staring down at her. His eyes . . . looked worried. He never looked that way.

    “Breathe, Cassie,” his voice snapped.

    She couldn’t.

    Machines started to beep around her.

    “The dose was too high!” her father yelled.

    The light seemed to be fading.

    “Cassie?”

    He’d injected her with something else. She had just made out the glint of a needle before it was shoved into her arm.

    “Her heart has stopped beating.” A woman’s voice. A nurse. Mrs. May. She sometimes gave Cassie lollipops when her father wasn’t looking. Mrs. May had always seemed so nice.

    But she had strapped her down minutes before. Usually, one of the men would strap her down. Not sweet Mrs. May. Not . . .

    “Cassie!” She couldn’t see her father anymore, but at least the fire had stopped burning her body. She didn’t feel the fire anymore. Didn’t feel anything.

    “She’s flatlined!”

    Cassie heard nothing more.

    Cassie sucked in a desperate breath. Then she screamed because she hurt.

    “She’s back! Dammit, she’s back!”

    That was . . . Daddy’s voice. She tried to see him, but the light above her was too bright. So Cassie looked down . . . and saw the blood that covered her body. “Dad . . . dy?”

    Then he was there. Lowering his face toward hers. “It’s going to be all right, sweetheart. I took care of you.”

    She’d never seen him smile like that before.

    “You’re going to be so strong now. So strong . . .”

    She didn’t feel strong.

    “You’ll change the world. You’ll change the world . . .”

    Cassie could only lay there and feel the wet warmth of her blood. The straps cut her, but they didn’t hurt nearly as bad as . . . as the stitches that her father was putting into her skin.

    But Cassie didn’t cry out again. There was no point. Daddy wasn’t going to let her go.

    She turned her head. More nurses were around her. Mrs. May even brushed a soft, gloved hand over her cheek.

    Cassie held her body as still as she could and wished, so very badly, that her father hadn’t brought her back.

    Because in those few moments, she’d enjoyed death.

    Cassie crept quietly down the hallway. Someone new had been brought into the facility. She’d heard the raised voices. The thud of footsteps.

    Her daddy had said that his program was growing.

    Her daddy scared her.

    When she saw him leaving the room at the end of the hall, she ducked back into the shadows. He passed her flanked by two big men with guns, and he never looked her way.

    Her hands were shaking so she balled them into fists. Then, her bare feet making no sound, Cassie slipped down the hallway.

    She opened the door to the last room, but no one was inside. Stairs were in the corner. Stairs leading down below.

    Cassie bit her lip. She wasn’t supposed to be there. Her daddy had said . . .

    Daddy’s bad. He hurt me.

    She went down the stairs. Then she saw him.

    Big, dark. In a . . . cage?

    His head jerked up, and he spun toward her. “Who are you?” the man in the cage demanded. His voice scared her. It was like an animal’s rumbling growl.

    But she crept closer to him.

    He stiffened as his dark gaze raked over her. “Why is there blood on you?”

    “He killed me.” She understood exactly what had happened. And what would happen. “He’s going to kill you, too.”

    The man came toward the heavy bars that separated them. “Do you want to help me, little girl?”

    She nodded.

    “Go back upstairs. See if you can find a key to open the cage and—”

    Her fisted hand opened. She’d already taken the key.

    Sometimes, her daddy didn’t realize how smart she really was.

    She put the key in the lock. Heard the snick. “I don’t want him to kill anyone else.” Soft, sad.

    The man came out of the cage. He bent before her. Stared into her eyes. “Who are you?” he asked again.

    His eyes were so dark. Just like the darkness that had claimed her when she died.

    “Cassie . . . Cassandra.”

    “Come with me, Cassandra. We’re both getting out of here.” His fingers wrapped around hers.

    His hand felt too warm.

    “I want to get out,” she whispered, nodding quickly. “Please, help me.”

    His fingers tightened around hers. “I will.”

    She heard the thud of footsteps, coming down the stairs.

    “Cassie!” Her father’s shout. “Cassie . . . what have you done?” He was there. He wasn’t alone. More men with guns. Always . . . the guns.

    “Shoot him,” her father ordered as he glared at the man beside Cassie.

    “No!” she yelled.

    But they didn’t listen to her. They never did. Bullets flew by her. They thudded into the body of the man who’d been caged.

    Hard hands reached for her and yanked her away from him even as his body fell.

    “No!” She kicked and twisted and clawed, but she couldn’t get back to him. “Stop!”

    “Move away. The fire’s coming . . .” Her father’s words. Heavy with an edge that sounded like he was excited. His smile made her stomach twist.

    Her eyes returned to the man—dead now. Just like she’d been on her daddy’s table.

    “Don’t worry,” her father told her, finally glancing her way. “He’ll come back, too.”

    A few minutes later, the man’s body began to burn right in front of her eyes. Fire raced across his skin.

    “I told you, Cassie,” her father said as he stroked her hair. “Monsters are real.”

    The man continued to burn.

    “Y-yes, Daddy.”

    He was right. There was a monster in the room. But it wasn’t the man who was starting to rise to his feet—even as he burned. No, Cassie knew the real monster was the man smiling and hugging her.

    Her father.

    And one day, she would stop him.

    One day.

    CHAPTER ONE

    It was hard for Cassandra Armstrong to love a man who didn’t remember her.

    It was even harder to walk into the seediest paranormal bar that existed on the backstreets of Chicago and discover said man in the arms of some trashy vamp.

    Cassie’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Dante. He was in the back corner, probably trying to hide in the shadows, except the guy wasn’t exactly the type to blend well.

    Too big. Too dangerous. Too sexy.

    And that vamp had her fangs way too close to his throat for Cassie’s peace of mind.

    Cassie shoved her way through the crowd, muttering apologies as she bumped into the various paranormal beings—and the humans—who filled Taboo. A few years ago, the paranormals had stopped pretending they didn’t exist and gotten wild with their coming out party. Since then, clubs like Taboo had popped up in all the major cities in the U.S. and around the world.

    Dante stood against the back wall. The vampire, a woman with long red hair and a way-too-short skirt, had her hands all over him. Blood-red nails, of course. Typical. The redhead was arching up on her toes and putting her mouth close to Dante’s neck.

    “Okay. You’re just going to need to get away from him,” Cassie snapped as she closed in on them.

    The vampire froze.

    Dante tilted his head to the side and glanced curiously over at Cassie. Was there any recognition in his dark gaze?

    Of course not. To him, she could have been any stranger off the street.

    Don’t let it hurt. Don’t. Dante couldn’t help what he was.

    But he could get the hell away from that trashy vamp.

    The vampire spun toward Cassie and hissed.

    Wait. Hissed, really? Cassie barely controlled an eye roll. “Get lost,” the vamp told her, baring her fangs. “He’s mine.”

    Think again. Cassie’s hands were clenched into fists, and it took all of her self-control not to swing out at the chick. “No, he’s not.” Said very definitely. She looked past the vampire. “Dante, we need to leave.”

    He stiffened.

    That’s right. I know your name. Why oh why can’t you know something about me? Anything?

    But that was the way it always was for them.

    Cassie kept holding Dante’s gaze. “Trust me on this. You don’t want her sinking those fangs into you.”

    His blood was special, and rather addictive to vampires. If the redhead got one sip, she wouldn’t be backing away from him anytime soon.

    Then I’d have to stake her. Oh, what a pity.

    “Dante, we can—” Cassie’s words ended in a gasp.

    The vampire had lunged forward and wrapped her hand around Cassie’s throat. With that one hand, the vampire lifted her off her feet. “Maybe I’ll just sink my fangs into you, bitch.” Then she leaned her head in close to Cassie and whispered, “Because no one gets between me and my meal.”

    “Y-you . . . don’t . . . want . . .” Cassie tried to choke out the words but it was hard to speak, um, what with the vamp actually choking her and all. She was trying to tell the redhead . . . You don’t want to put your fangs in me. That would be a huge mistake.

    But the vamp wasn’t giving her the time to talk.

    “Let her go.” Dante’s voice. Cold. Flat. And as deliciously deep as she remembered.

    The vampire’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Cassie with a mix of disgust and rage. “You’re right. We don’t need her. We don’t—”

    “I said . . . let her go.” The threat in Dante’s voice had goose bumps rising on Cassie’s arms. “And I meant do it now.”

    The vamp dropped her.

    Cassie landed on her ass.

    Figured. She’d never been the graceful type.

    The redhead turned toward Dante. “Ready to leave?” she purred to him.

    Purring. Hissing. The vamp was so annoying.

    “You leave.” Dante sent her a look that could have frozen a desert. “I’m not done here.”

    “But—”

    “And I’m not your f**king meal,” he added, a touch of heat whipping through his words.

    So he had heard that part. Cassie had thought his enhanced hearing would pick it up.

    The redhead glared at Dante, then at Cassie. There was a promise of retribution in the vamp’s eyes.

    Ah, yes, another day, another enemy. Cassie swallowed and rose slowly to her feet.

    “I’ll see you again,” the vampire murmured. The words were directed at Cassie, and they sure sounded like a threat.

    Wonderful. As if she needed any more threats in her life.

    Then the vampire was gone. Probably off to find another meal.

    “Who are you?” His voice was a low rumble of sound, one that sent a few more shivers dancing over her skin. Maybe some people—okay, most people—would find that deep rumble scary.

    To her, it was sexy. Because of Dante, she’d always had a thing for men with deep voices.

    She squared her shoulders and stared up at him. “Did you burn again?” She’d seen him just a few months before in New Orleans.

    He’d saved her life then. Had actually seemed to remember her . . .

    But there was no recognition on his face now.

    She stared up at him. Those high cheekbones, that square jaw. The firm lips that she’d never seen smile, despite all of her attempts to make him happy. His eyes were dark, so dark they appeared almost as black as the thick hair that hung a little too long and grazed the back of his shirt.

    Those eyes were watchful, guarded, as they swept over her. “Burn?” Dante repeated carefully.

    In the next second, he lunged forward—his move faster than the vamp’s had been. His hand—big, strong, hot—wrapped around her arm and pulled her close against his chest. “Now just how the hell would you know about that?”

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