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MARKED EXCERPT

Chapter One

In the span of a single night, my life had gone right to hell. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars…just straight into the flames without stopping to knock on the devil’s door.

For those curious, that night was not tonight. No. That particular night had occurred two days ago when I’d stumbled home to find a vampire suckling at the teat of life. Or rather, my best friend’s throat. Since then, my entire world had been flipped upside down, and, somehow, I’d been dragged into a ludicrous plan—one that began right here and now in the office of Madam da Silva, vampire courtesan extraordinaire.

“Ms. Winter?”

The sound of my name lifted my head from my palms, and I studied the face of the unpleasant receptionist who beckoned me.

“The madam will see you now.”

The madam… I might have laughed were it not for the glaring dread twisting my stomach. This entire plan screamed insanity. It would have made far more sense to rally the troops and hunt down the bastard responsible for turning my best friend into a walking blood bag. Instead, I’d let Tessa convince me that this was the smarter path. The things we did for those we loved…

Shaking my head, I pushed up from my seat and trailed after the madam’s assistant while fighting to slow my pulse. This was it. No turning back. The moment I entered her office, my fate would be sealed.

“She hasn’t much time to speak with you, I’m afraid. This is a busy time of year, what with all the events we handle. She’s agreed to a few moments, but that’s it.”

I nodded absently and fiddled with the tattered edges of my ratty sweater. A few moments. All right. So I really had to sell myself. Literally. A little notice would have been nice, since I wasn’t exactly at my best right now—not to mention, completely out of my element. I should have changed before heading here, but, as exhausted as I’d been, I hadn’t paid any attention to the state of my wardrobe.

The receptionist nudged open the door, then gestured me inside with a wide, sweeping arm, and bowed head. A curtsy? Seriously? I almost snorted, then stepped into the office and perused the grandiose interior, from its ornate furniture to the lavish art dotting the elegantly painted walls.

“Madam? Ms. Amelia Winter to see you.” With a faint nod in my direction, the receptionist slipped back into the hallway and closed the office door behind her. Apparently, that was what qualified as an introduction in this place.

Madam da Silva didn’t turn to greet me. So, instead, I noted the credentials framed on her mahogany desk and the alphabetized bookshelf off to the side. A posh couch ran the length of her room, adjacent a gleaming glass table.

As for the madam… She stood facing a large picture window, her hands linked together at the small of her back. Long folds of midnight silk molded her ample curves and muted champagne pumps hugged her feet.

Seemed appearances meant a great deal here. Even the receptionist wore a dress that had likely cost a semester’s tuition. And here I stood, rumpled after spending two nights in the hospital’s hard, plastic chairs.

“Sit, please, Amelia,” Madam da Silva murmured, still facing the window.

I eased into the nearest seat and crossed my legs at the knee. When she finally turned, I uncrossed them and smoothed my clammy palms down my thighs.

 

“Now, then. Let me have a look at you.”

That task would have been easier if I’d remained standing. My mouth quirked at the corners, but I held my barbed tongue. It might have taken the first twenty-two years of my life, but my father had successfully instilled within me the ability to think before speaking—a trait which would come in handy here. Annoying the one woman capable of saving Tessa’s life seemed rather unwise.

Madam da Silva’s sharp, amber gaze lingered on my face, and I knew what she saw. Long, wheat-colored hair swept back into a messy knot and cornflower blue eyes set in a softly rounded face. Odds were, it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen before. At least not here. Madam da Silva was someone who made her livelihood off beautiful women. I was nothing more than another face in a sea of blondes.

She tapped the tapered edge of her long fingernail against her lips and stepped toward me. “I must admit, your application is timely. I found myself down another girl today. The flu, it would seem.”

I nodded, unsure of what to say. Truth be told, Tessa had been the one to somehow arrange this appointment. Whether or not this other girl actually had the flu, I hadn’t a clue.

“However, Amelia, I would like to know why exactly you wish to become a vampire courtesan.”

Holy crickets. Hearing those words nearly gave me an aneurysm. I didn’t want to become a courtesan. Not in the least. My entire life, I’d been told vampires were evil, and after everything I’d seen, I was inclined to agree.

But I no longer had that choice.

Most humans lived their lives without spotting a single bloodsucker, even though vamps had populated the Chicago metropolitan area since its inception. But they had their own society deep within the underbelly of the city, and the general population had only recently learned of their shadow world. Nevertheless, my family had a long history with vamps, and, as a result, were not welcome among them.

“Amelia?”

Madam da Silva’s voice roused me from my thoughts. “Uh, it’s Winter, actually.”

Surprise flickered across her face. “You dislike your given name?” she asked, her head cocked as though I’d finally said something interesting.

Dislike wasn’t the correct word. It wasn’t that I hated my first name, more so how soft it sounded. Growing up with four older brothers, I’d need something stronger and less flowery than Amelia. Very few people in my life were privy to my first name, and those who were had long since taken a vow of silence.

A silence I responded with right now.

“Very well, then.” Her plum-colored lips curled upward as though I amused her. “Tell me what brings you here.”

I tamped back the nervous laughter that rose up in my throat. The truth was unbecoming, and I couldn’t use it. Tessa had warned me of that before sending me on my way. I wasn’t to mention her name or suggest I had a relationship with any other courtesans. If I did, I’d be kicked to the curb faster than I could say vampire. At the time, I’d simply nodded, too afraid to delve further. I still lacked the entire story, and only knew enough to get me through this interview. Which meant resorting to a half-truth. All right, a bold-faced lie, one I was convinced she’d heard many times before and would accept at face value. 

“I can’t afford my tuition anymore,” I finally responded, shifting in my seat, “and I’m running out of funds. Part-time waitressing isn’t cutting it anymore.” 

A knowing glint shimmered in her piercing eyes. “The costs these days are abysmal, unfortunately. The sacrifices we must make for higher education, yes?”

I hummed a noncommittal response.

“You wouldn’t be the first to come to me for a similar reason.”

I believed it.

My dad actually had more than enough slotted away for my education. Of his five children, I was the only one who had elected to attend college. I still remembered my first day. It was one of the few times I could remember my father shedding tears. My brothers had chosen, much to my father’s dismay, to dedicate themselves to the family business: Second City Exterminators.

Ridding the city of pests, one vampire at a time.

Yup, you heard me.

I, Amelia Winter, was the youngest, and only, female in a family chock-full of vampire slayers. Hence, the reason my stomach was twisted into knots. Here I was, the innocent daughter of a slayer about to sell my blood and body to the monsters my father had sworn to destroy, all to save my best friend’s life. And I still didn’t quite understand why. Some things were done on faith, and this was one of them. Tessa meant the world to me. She was the second daughter my parents had never had. I wouldn’t abandon her now.

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t still sick at the thought of doing this.

If my family ever found out, they’d disown me. Hell, they’d probably go so far as to put me out of my misery. But what choice did I have? If I backed out now, Tessa was dead. Or so she’d claimed.

“If you’re truly committed to this, rest assured you will receive enough funds to pay for your entire year of school before the week is out,” Madam da Silva continued, oblivious to my train of thought.

Relief rounded my shoulders. Tessa was actually the one in need of the money, and she’d been given seven nights—five, now—to come up with an inordinate amount of money. Why? I hadn’t a clue. In all the chaos, I hadn’t heard the whole story. There’d been doctors, nurses, and even a psychiatrist who had suggested the wounds on her throat were self-inflicted. It’d taken all my restraint not to shove my fist down his throat.

“Have you any indication as to what the job entails, Winter?”

“Yes.” I choked down the lump in my throat. 

Sex and blood…that was the explanation I’d been given. The blood part, while disgusting, didn’t bother me. The sex part, on the other hand, had me trembling in my threadbare boots. It wasn’t like I was particularly experienced in that area. Not with my family. The last time I’d brought a boy home, my father had dragged out his favorite battle-axe and had spent the evening spit-shining it in front of my date.

Needless to say, that was the last I’d ever seen of that particular boy.

“Excellent. Now, have you any experience with vampires?”

“No,” I said. At least this part I could be honest about. “I’ve seen them on the news now and then, but other than that…”

“Do they frighten you?”

Abso-fricken-lutely. Especially now. Once, I’d tried to convince my father that I could handle hunting with him and my brothers. The throbbing vein in his forehead had nearly popped, he’d been so angry. And now? I’d never forget the sight of that vamp’s fangs buried in Tessa’s throat. The blood. The screams. The greedy sound of him sucking the life out of her. But I couldn’t speak about any of that. 

So, instead, I mustered my courage and forced a bright smile. “Not at all.”

My heart thumped in my chest to the rhythm of Liar, Liar. 

“And what of your sexual experience?”

Color suffused my cheeks. Now that was a subject I didn’t wish to discuss, especially with a perfect stranger. Mostly because there wasn’t much to discuss. I wasn’t as pure as the driven snow, but I was damned close. Yet another topic I’d been instructed to lie about. 

“I’m a second-year college student.” I forced my smile a little brighter. “I’m experienced.”

“Excellent. A shame you haven’t any prior experience with a vampire, though. A reference does tend to aid us in the selection process.”

I balked at the suggestion. A reference…as in, a sexual reference? The color drained from my face. I couldn’t imagine handing over someone’s phone number as a reference for my prowess. Holy crickets, the world we lived in these days.

“I assume you have no issues feeding a vampire.”

Oh, so many. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?” I asked with a bold grin, contrary to the shudder rippling down my spine.

“What you must understand, Winter, is that these vampires are not purchasing one service or the other, but both. Each of my courtesans is hired with the understanding that they will provide blood during sex. It’s a rather intimate act for a vampire, and I dare say, quite enjoyable for the human as well.”

My eyes widened.

“Will that be a problem?”

Her arched brow suggested she knew the answer to that question already, but I composed myself and shook my head. “I enjoy trying new things.”

“Perfect.” She closed the distance between us and offered me a hand up. She indicated I should turn, which I did without question. “I assume your physique is agreeable; though, I can’t tell for certain beneath that hideous sweater. And though quite a few vampires prefer experienced courtesans, I assure you, your lack of skill won’t affect your worth. In fact, your price increases when you’re untasted.”

I turned toward her with a lifted brow. “Why?”

“Vampires can tell when someone has been tasted by another. Some don’t mind, as an experienced courtesan is less of a hassle to them. Others, however, prefer only new blood.”

“You mean virginal,” I countered, my tone bitter.

She waved a dismissive hand. “It’s a dominance and territorial thing. I’m afraid vampires can grow possessive of their marks. I’ve witnessed such a thing, though, not often. And I must say, you have a lovely color about you. An appealing glow that offsets your hair. Speaking of which…” She removed the clip from the nape of my neck and watched in awe as the mussed waves tumbled down my back. “Goodness. We can do a great deal with your hair.” She lifted her gaze and caught mine. “Your eyes are rather remarkable. Have you any scars? Anything unappealing?”

I blinked, then shook my head. “Just the usual. Nothing overly noticeable.”

“Your height and stature are desirable. We’ll find some appropriate heels for you. These garments simply must be done away with, though.”

I grimaced. This was my favorite U of Chicago sweater, given to me by my father. No way would I toss it out.

“Don’t fret, dear,” Madam da Silva said. “We will provide you with an acceptable wardrobe. You will be responsible for maintaining it. And should you leave my employ, the clothing must be returned in the condition presented to you.”

A uniform? That I could get behind.

“Barring any last minute concerns, I believe you’d do well amongst us. Have you any questions?”

For the briefest moment, a wave of pride crested within me, until I remembered my purpose here. It certainly wasn’t to fit in with the ‘cool kids’, and yes, I’d mentally added air quotes there. 

“One,” I answered. “When do I start?”

Madam da Silva responded with an amused chuckle, then turned with a graceful flourish that stole my breath. “It isn’t so simple, my dear. This is Chicago, and I have many girls interested in becoming courtesans, as I’m sure you may imagine.”

Actually, I’d thought the opposite. It seemed near impossible to believe that some willingly wanted to become part of this lifestyle, but even I knew there were fang-junkies out there.

“Though your timing was fortuitous, you aren’t officially a courtesan until you’ve been purchased.”

“And who does that?”

“Why, the vampires, dear girl.” Another forcibly charming chuckle that made me want to slit my wrists. “Tonight is the City in the Garden Gala. Vampires from all across the state will be in attendance, and I am responsible for supplying a range of delicacies…”

“Delicacies, as in…”

“As in you.” 

Saw that coming from a mile away. I squared my shoulders and nodded, silently preparing myself for what was to come.

“I provide the vampires with a selection of women, but it is they who choose their courtesans. You will also be given a gown for the night, but it is your responsibility to flirt and entice the clientele.”

“To what end?”

She arched a delicate brow. “To the final point of sale. Your job is to charm the clientele into bidding on you. It is your responsibility to drive them wild until one, or preferably more, deign to bid on you.”

My mouth parted. “Bid?”

“Indeed. The gala tonight is a charity event, or an auction if you will. Highest bidder wins the right to the lady of his choosing. Do try to be among them. As I said before, I will provide the wardrobe, but after that, it all comes down to your ability to charm yourself a companion.”

“And if no one bids on me?”

She lifted her shoulder in an elegant shrug. “Then it’s back to waitressing with you.”

“All or nothing, hey?”

“As is often the case in life.”

In other words, Tessa’s life depended on my ability to seduce a possibly centuries-old vampire with only one prior notch on my belt. This had disaster written all over it. 

“So, to be clear… You primp me up and pimp me out, but I have to seal the deal?”

“Crude, but accurate. However, someone as lovely and as experienced as you shouldn’t have any issues, wouldn’t you agree?”

Oh, sure. What twenty-two-year-old didn’t enjoy hearing that? See, this was what happened when people deceived. Tessa had lied to me, and now her life was in danger. As a result, I had lied to the madam, and now she expected me to seduce a freaking vampire. Which meant, now I had to lie to my family about everything.

All in all, probably the worst Tuesday ever.

“Arrive at the Palmer House Hilton by six o’clock sharp. The event begins at eight, but you will need time to dress and see the stylist. If you are late, you forfeit your position.”

This had all sounded far simpler while sitting at Tessa’s bedside. We’d contemplated the many ways this could go wrong; however, me playing the role of the seductress hadn’t even made the top ten.

“Until tonight, my dear.”

Recognizing a dismissal when I heard one, I gave a grim nod and left the room. The term up shit creek suddenly made a hell of a lot more sense.

Guess all that remained was giving Tessa the ‘good’ news.