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“I’m not Mariah. I’m not Mariah.”
The words fell from her parched lips in a constant cycle, over and over and over again, until they became nothing but a jumble of sounds bumping around in her head, like loose change tumbling in a clothes dryer, imprinting on her consciousness so she repeated the mantra even in sleep.
Not that she wanted to sleep. With sleep came vivid nightmares of blood and monsters, of evil and violence, and a blank nothingness that stretched as far as her mind’s eye could see. When she awakened, the nothingness remained, cloaking her mind, her memories, as though a bag had been pulled over her head, leaving her to stumble alone and scared in the void of her psyche.
The only thing she knew about herself was who she wasn’t.
“I’m not Mariah.”
Mouth dry, she rose from her seated position on the cold cement floor and walked on shaky legs the few feet to the sink. The manacle circling her ankle grated her flesh, and the chain binding her to the metal loop anchored deep in the concrete in the center of the room scraped against the floor in her wake. She turned the tap and picked up the red plastic cup, which looked out of place sitting on the gilded marble surface. The cold liquid eased her tired throat, and she drained the cup twice more before setting it back in place. She splashed water on her face and scrubbed her bloodshot eyes before finally meeting her gaze in the mirror.
How much of a person’s history could be learned from appearances alone? She’d studied herself for hours, hoping for even a tiny flicker of insight, and had come up with a woefully short list. She was a she, no doubt about that. Young, somewhere in her early twenties maybe? Golden brown hair framed her face and fell halfway down her back in limp, tangled snarls. Blush-colored lips, arched brown eyebrows and light blue eyes—stained underneath with dark smudges—were the only colors in her otherwise pale complexion. Was she normally so pallid, or had imprisonment and the lack of nourishing sunlight turned her into a ghost of her former self?
She traced the veins beneath the near-translucent flesh of her arm, a vivid reminder that she was alive, that she had a life, even if she couldn’t remember it.
Returning to her seated position on the cement, she shivered and hugged her knees to her chest. She preferred the frigid concrete over the neatly made bed because the floor kept her awake and aware, enabling her to fight this thing that was trying to take over, to change her into someone else.
She rubbed a fingertip over her most exciting find, discovered while searching every inch of her body for clues to her identity. An almost invisible scar on her left knee, shaped like a crescent moon, smaller than the tip of her pinkie fingernail. That one tiny blemish held a world of possibilities. Had she gotten it falling off her bike when her dad took off the training wheels for the first time? Or maybe she was a klutz, constantly walking into walls and furniture? The mark was a link to her past that not even the evil stalking her could remove.
But that was it. No “I Heart Bubba” tattoos. No “My Name Is” stickers attached to any of the white cotton shifts comprising her wardrobe. Nothing familiar about the floral bedding on the twin bed, no books sitting on the nonexistent nightstand. Just a stranger, even to herself, sequestered in a tiny, locked room.
At times the fear was overwhelming. But she held on, defiant and stubborn. A small smile lifting her lips, she added two more things to the list of what she knew about herself.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway, the tumbler released in the lock and the door swung open. Steeling her spine, she spoke her mantra with new force. “I’m not Mariah. I’m not Mariah.”
A shadow blocked the light from the lone bulb hanging from the ceiling before a cold hand descended on her head, patting her almost lovingly. She flinched. Ignore him. Don’t let him win.
Strong fingers combed through her hair, untangling the matted strands. He murmured soothing words, his voice a deep rumble, showing a compassion so at odds with his arrogant demeanor. She wanted to lash out, inflict bodily harm, free herself, but past attacks against her captor had proved futile and drained her energy, leaving her unable to provide a lasting internal defense. She had to conserve her strength, use it in the mental fight that lay ahead.
The exhaustion she’d battled for the weeks—months?—of her confinement, coupled with the strong hand massaging her scalp, had her eyelids drooping, her body leaning into the unexpected gentleness. For just one minute she wanted to forget the constant fear her life had become, for just one minute…
White light exploded behind her shuttered eyelids, and a crazed, riotous noise filled her head, like a thousand bees buzzing erratically in her skull. Out of the chaos, her consciousness expanded into brilliant Technicolor. Someone else’s hand caressed her hair, tucking a loose strand behind one ear, warm gold-specked brown eyes sparkled with laughter, teeth flashing white as he smiled. A memory of a friend? A lover? It didn’t matter, he was another link to her past, a stunning, beautiful reminder that she was more than a shell, more than a ghost of her former self, more than a laundry list of physical attributes.
Stomach clenching as the recollection faded like smoke in the wind, she lashed out. The bastard in front of her, hand cradling her head as though he had the right to touch her so familiarly, had ripped that life away from her. Whether good or bad it had been hers to live. Now she had nothing but painful, out-of-focus glimpses of her past and an unknown future trapped at her captor’s will.
She threw herself backward, away from his grasp, wincing as several strands of hair tore from her scalp, remaining trapped between his fingers. Glaring into dark eyes that didn’t reflect light or a soul, she screamed her mantra at him. “I am not Mariah. I am not Mariah.”
A slow smile emanated his dispassion, chilling her deeper than the cold floor beneath her. He wore a black tuxedo with red vest and bowtie. Who was he trying to fool? He was still a monster, even in formal wear.
Kneeling next to her, he smoothed his hand down her face. She cringed.
Gripping her hair again, he wound the long tresses around his hand and jerked her head back. Forced to look up at him, she blinked away the tears caused by his wrenching hold and spat, “I’m not Mariah.”
His grin widened. “No, my little spitfire, you’re not. Not yet. But you will be. You will be.”
His unforgiving mouth smashed over hers, and the painful assault began anew.
She screamed as a bright light invaded her mind, forcing images, memories, thoughts not her own deep inside.
She screamed as her soul went into hiding, retreating to the furthest reaches of her mind.
She screamed as her last hold on her identity slipped away.
And she kept screaming as he left the room, whistling a waltz, a slight dance in his step.
Electrofunk rhythm pounded sonic ecstasy from the bass box and amps hidden in the trunk, nearly shaking Dusty’s ’68 Buick Wildcat off the road. One hand curled around the steering wheel, while the other kept time with the thrumming bass line, slapping against the top of the passenger seat. Cool ocean breeze whipped through his hair as he glanced straight up at the twilight sky, grooving his head to the beat.
If anything could get Dusty in the mood for the next six hours, it was music. Loud-pounding, feet-moving, head-bopping music—some Mary Jane Girls mixed with Time Zone and a little Soul Sonic Force—in other words, nothing like what he was going to hear tonight. He punched the volume up even louder until he felt the music vibrating his teeth. Aw yeah…
Dusty made a left, heading to the top of the bluff where The Pearl, Talisman Bay’s most exclusive five-star resort, towered over the Pacific Ocean. This evening everyone who lived for the limelight would show up there, to flaunt their cars, their money, their jewels and their women—in that order of importance—as they lightened their pocketbooks for charity.
Which was the only reason Dusty was going. This year Talisman Bay’s Fifth Annual Charity Ball was raising money for the Family Violence Prevention fund. If the fund had been in place a decade and a half sooner, Dusty and his friends could have benefited from it.
So tonight he’d suited up—tux, bowtie and shiny shoes—and was ready to pretend he was something he wasn’t, to con the rich into donating to the cause. In six hours, it would all be over, and he’d return to his normal, everyday life of kicking demon ass. It couldn’t come soon enough.
He followed the signs to valet parking, passing a parade of overly expensive, ridiculously unnecessary cars in the covered turnaround. Normally, with the top down, he’d throw himself over the door, but right now he had to be good. Had to keep up appearances even though doors were for sissies.
Popping the rarely used door handle, he stepped out of the car and handed it off to one of the red-shirted valets. After patting his breast pocket to make sure the invitation was still there, Dusty joined a group of well-dressed people making their way to the hotel. His injured calf twinged in protest as he walked the slight incline to the entrance. The nasty little demon who took a bite out of him three months earlier had done a number on him. The poison in the creature’s bite had wrecked his leg beyond Fiero’s healing capabilities—and boy had his friend ripped him up for taking too long to see him after the battle.
Dusty wouldn’t have done it any different though. They’d won that battle, Stephan got his girl and they’d sent the enemy, Craze, to a hell dimension, and had enjoyed a quiet, relatively trouble-free Talisman Bay ever since. The last thing he needed was for Stephan—or any of the guys—to find out the damn wound still caused him this much hell. He’d end up on restricted Shadow Walker duty for life. No fighting, no fun…no thanks.
The Pearl lived up to its name, bright and shiny and opalescent, the lobby glowing with the thousands of brilliant lights shining from within. He should’ve brought his sunglasses.
A hand settled in the crook of his elbow, and he turned with a fake smile. The pretense had begun.
Or maybe not. His smile deepened. “Hey, Twyla.”
Twyla stood on tiptoe and kissed the corner of his mouth. “I need a hero to sweep me off my feet. Dinner’s being served, and only the most handsome man in the room is going to escort me inside.”
“I think Marlin’s already in there. Want me to find him for you?”
“Prettyboy?” she said, using her nickname for Marlin. “Nah. Tonight I want you.”
“Well, damn. What did I do to deserve this?”
“Nothing yet. I got shanghaied into being auctioned off for a dance tonight and you’re going to bid on me.”
As much as he wanted to believe the illustrious, mysterious Twyla merely wanted to coerce him into dancing with her, it couldn’t be the whole story. “Okay, sure. Whatever you need. But why?”
Twyla shook her head, brown eyes glistening with mascara and eyeliner, but without an ounce of joy. “I just wanna end up with someone I know, who knows me, so I don’t have to pretend to be excited to dance with some jerk who just wants an excuse to grab my ass.”
“All right. But I can’t be held responsible if I trip on your toes, forget the steps or some other mutually embarrassing thing happens.”
“You’re here to give money, right? Just give lots… No one will care if we look stupid.”
* * *
“Ten thousand dollars,” Dusty called out, starting the bidding on Twyla.
The charity ball was almost over. Twyla was the last person to go on the auction block. Soon the dancing would commence, and Dusty’s responsibilities here would end. He’d done his job—danced with a lot of women and helped lighten quite a few pocketbooks by getting people to donate to the cause—and he still had time to resurrect the evening by slaying something evil with his fists, rather than his bank account.
“Okay, we have ten thousand dollars for Twyla,” Stephan announced, playing his role of auctioneer and MC of tonight’s event. “Can I get fifteen thousand?”
“Fifteen thousand dollars,” another man called out from the back.
“Twenty thousand dollars,” Dusty offered, and cast a glance at his competition for Twyla’s dance. The man had to be in his eighties. Poor Twyla would end up carting the old fogy around the dance floor if he won.
“Cheapskate,” Marlin yelled at Dusty. “Twenty-five thousand.”
“You guys are both cheap,” Mariah said, stepping up to Dusty’s side. “Thirty thousand,” she shouted.
The room erupted in titters and laughter as Twyla blew a kiss at Mariah. From where he stood on the stage, Stephan smiled down at his fiancée. “Sweetheart, I thought we were dancing together.”
“Well, Twyla is my best friend…” She held up her hands like she was weighing her options. “Best friend. Fiancé. I guess somebody better outbid me then.” Mariah nudged Dusty with her elbow.
Stephan looked the room over. “Okay, somebody please outbid my fiancée so I can dance with her.”
Several other men joined in the bidding war, the dollar amount going higher and higher.
“Seventy-five thousand dollars,” Dusty said when the flurry of bidding had slowed down a bit. When no one else offered up a challenge for Twyla’s dance, Stephan closed the auction, and Dusty nodded his approval. Damn straight he won this dance.
“Thanks for bidding on Twyla.” Mariah squeezed Dusty’s arm. “It’s nice to see her laughing and smiling again.”
“I’m happy to help.”
Her eyes narrowed as her gaze dropped from his face to his throat. “You’ve been pulling on your bowtie, haven’t you?”
“If I don’t pull on it, it’s gonna decapitate me and that might suck.”
Soft-as-silk fingers brushed over his throat as she adjusted his bowtie. “There. All better. Now you won’t lose your head.”
He kinked his neck back and forth. “Damn. How’d you fix that?”
“The real question is, how’d you guys survive without a woman around all these years to help take care of you?”
“We weren’t livin’.”
She smiled. “Well, my job here is done. I’m off to find my fiancé to see if I can steal him away from his duties and get my promised dance with him.” She waved over her shoulder before disappearing into the crowd.
Twyla weaved through the mass of people around the stage, heading toward him. “Seventy-five thousand, huh? I guess I’ll need to pull out my fancy dance moves.” The tiny brunette gave him a tired smile and snagged her arm through his. “How fast are you making tracks out of here when this dance is done?”
“Sounds like someone has a wild night of fun ahead of her.”
She put a finger to her lips like she was contemplating her plans. “Fun? Hmm… Comfy clothes, enough wire to strangle myself and a ton of beads to choke on. Only infomercials on the television.” She shrugged. “Yeah, lots of fun. I’ll be finishing an order of necklaces. No wild night for me.”
“Hey now. I’m not one to keep a woman from her infomercials. How ’bout we dance our way toward the exit so you can run out as soon as the song is through. Sound good?”
“That’s the best plan I’ve heard all night.”
They quieted as Leslie Winters, Talisman Bay’s mayor, stepped up to the microphone. Although Stephan handled all the Chamber of Commerce and other public events, Dusty had met Leslie on occasion, and liked the woman. She was a powerhouse in the community, and Talisman Bay was better with her running the city.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming out tonight. We’ve outdone ourselves this year, and The Family Violence Prevention fund will be receiving a check in excess of one million dollars from all of your contributions.” A smattering of applause filled the air. Music started playing softly in the background. “But now I’m going to step back, allow the final dances to begin. I just want to remind everyone that we’ll be accepting donations the rest of the night if anyone—”
“One million dollars. One million dollars to dance with the stunning woman in front of me.”
Dusty spun toward the man behind the voice, hands reaching for his weapons before he remembered he didn’t have any on him—except for his fists. Security was too tight at these events.
Twyla’s fingers dug into Dusty’s arm as they both stared at the man who shouldn’t be here. The man who had kidnapped and almost killed Twyla and Mariah, and tried to wipe out the Shadow Walkers. The man currently standing behind Mariah, a smug grin on his face.
Craze was back.
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EXCERPT: Dusty and Skylar Dance
EXCERPT: First Kiss
DELETED SCENE: Dusty Mingles
DELETED SCENE: The Gang Has Dinner
DELETED SCENE: Twyla Dances
DELETED SCENE: Dusty Dances
DELETED SCENE: Twyla on the Balcony
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